Freight rail offering aims to boost GPS and telematics adoption across North American railcar fleet

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor · October 22, 2020

A group of freight railroad industry stakeholders announced yesterday they have rolled out a joint venture, with a sharp focus on creating a technology platform they said will “transform rail shipping in the 21st century.”

Entitled Rail Pulse, the joint venture’s stakeholders include: a Class I railroad, Norfolk Southern; a provider of railcar products and services, Trinity Rail; an equipment finance company focused on railcar operating leasing in North America and Europe, GATX Corporation; short-line railroad carriers Genesee & Wyoming; and a transportation service company that owns and operates a diverse network of short line railroads, terminals, ports, and mechanical shops across North America and Australia, Watco.

The objective of Rail Pulse, according to its partner stakeholders, is to facilitate and accelerate the adoption of GPS and other telematics technology across the North American railcar fleet.

What’s more, the Rail Pulse partner stakeholders comprise ownership of roughly 20% of the North American railcar fleet and they are focused on boosting the adoption of telematics on two fronts:

rail safety, with the platform’s early phases geared towards hand brake and impact data, which they said could provide key safety data points for railroads, car owners and shippers, coupled with a forward-looking approach to telematics capabilities like onboard bearing temperature and wheel impact detection sensors; and increasing rail’s competitive position relative to other modes by improving visibility into the status, location, and condition of individual railcars, with telematics capabilities including data capture to support real-time track-level visibility, whether doors or hatches are open, whether the car is loaded or partially loaded, and other key performance metrics The Rail Pulse partner stakeholders said this initiative will benefit various industry stakeholders, including: shippers, Class I railroads, short lines, regional railroads, switching carriers and railcar operating lessors. And they added that Rail Pulse is focused on offering these parties with a “neutral, open-architecture, industry-wide railcar telematics platform to make it easier to ship by rail and to track rail shipments across the North American rail network, all while ensuring the safety and security of proprietary car-owner data.”

Development of the Rail Pulse platform is set to kick off between now and the end of 2020, and a full service platform is anticipated to be made available by the end of 2022, for the North American railcar industry. The Rail Pulse partner stakeholders said that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided leadership in a successful Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant application, also noting that along with Federal Railroad Administration funding, investments will be made by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the venture members to support the development of this platform.

“Rail Pulse is another example of how the freight rail industry is using advanced technology to enhance safety and service to shippers,” said Jennie Granger, PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation, in a statement. “PennDOT is proud of the strong partnership we have with the freight rail industry, and we look forward to this platform being implemented throughout the North American railcar fleet.”

LM contributing editor and longtime supply chain consultant and practitioner Brooks Bentz said that the impetus for this type of offering has been in the works, within freight railroad circles for a long time.

“We had talked about this kind of thing way back when…using smart bearings to determine a lot of these metrics,” he said. “This is a huge leap forward in helping make rail not only easier to do business with, but also a potentially more attractive alternative for moving product. The existing CLM (Car Location Messaging) is problematic. It’s not current technology, and it doesn’t tell a whipper where their cars are, only where they’ve been the last time the passed a lineside reader. And, its additional functionality in terms of business intelligence is practically nil.”

And he also observed that the new application will be much better, in terms of where things are, which he said is always a burning question when things go a bit off plan.

“The additional capabilities relating to impact, bearing temperatures, wheel sensors and such will improve operational safety, which is always goal Number-1,” he explained. “The other benefits relating to real-time visibility, status of doors and hatches and whether the car is loaded (and how much) or empty will be a big improvement. Presumably the carrier will also know when a car is tapped by the consignee and the unloading (or loading) process has begun. This will go a long way to reducing disputes over when cars are spotted on consignee sidings, constructively placed or pulled from the sidings, which will help ensure demurrage charges are accurate and well documented. This should have a net positive effect in improving equipment turn times and utilization.”

Looking ahead, Bentz said in such an interdependent industry, the real value of Rail Pulse won’t be fully realized until all functionality is available and universal, which will take time.

October 22, 2020