"Hey Cargill, where’s my corn sweetener car?” joked Jeannie Frana, the process, data and technology lead at Cargill in that familiar "Hey Alexa" cadence. Frana was explaining the future of railroading technology at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers (MARS) winter meeting in Lombard, Illinois, where a new focus on customer service was a predominant theme.
The path to real-time visibility in any industry is rarely easy, but in 2019, when an Amazon package can be tracked with every step of the carrier, you’d think rail customers would be able to find out where their freight is without making a phone call.
The truth is, most can’t, and many don’t find out about problems on the rails until their freight is late and they call to ask why.
So how can the rail industry begin to deploy technologies that leverage real-time data?
Start with APIs
Application Programming Interfaces (API) are a very simple form of automation where one server makes a data request for another on a continual basis, allowing for real-time data. Though railroads are certainly digitized today, most of the data flows only based on request from a user, meaning data isn’t continually updated and generally isn’t a real-time representation of what’s happening by the time it reaches the customer.
"APIs have gotten a lot of traction in the truck space but not so much in the rail space. This is an area that we are actively working on," said Shankar Sengupta, the VP of engineering and transport logistics at GE Transportation.
The next step after adopting APIs (assuming that all railroads in a railcar’s path had done so) would be making the data available to customers. Sengupta suggested using blockchain to do this, but he emphasized it’s not the only way.
"Once you start putting that data in a central repository, for now let’s assume it's a blockchain in the cloud, everybody can see it and everybody can take action on it,” he said.
Add IoT and sensors
Other than answering the age old question "where’s my stuff?" real-time visibility can also help with railroads’ number one priority, which is, in their own words — safety. For this, Internet of Things (IoT) technology is top of mind in the industry.
The Positive Train Control (PTC) mandate made sure railroads were very familiar with installing lots of sensors and even learning from traffic data, but there is more to sensors and cameras.
"The technology may be there, but culturally we’re not there."
Vice President of Engineering and Transport Logistics, GE Transportation
Canadian National is using LiDAR technology to create 3D images of tracks and find hairline cracks and defects to speed repairs to ensure safe operations. The railroad also uses cameras and data analytics to inspect railcars before they head into service.
CN had to find the right cameras and sensors to measure what is needed to monitor track maintenance. Some aspects of rail car maintenance are already available. New railcars come equipped with up to 500 sensors delivering plenty of data that currently isn’t widely used effectively, according to Timothy Thompson, senior manager of rail solutions for Uptake Technologies.
Uptake, a Chicago startup and Supply Chain Dive’s innovator of the year for 2018, is using data that railcars are already collecting to predict maintenance and downtime, reducing "road failures" and increasing reliability.
Don't let legacy systems hold you back
The technology to enable real-time visibility of freight location, track safety and locomotive health is available in the marketplace and in use in other industries. So what are the barriers to wide adoption in rail? A major problem that's shared all over the supply chain: legacy systems.
"The technology may be there, but culturally we’re not there," said Sengupta, who offered the example of ERPs, which he sees as standing in the way of blockchain adoption and could equally apply to other forms of cloud computing.
"The promise of blockchain is nothing is on your premises. You trust the cloud. You’re putting everything in the cloud, but you made millions and millions of dollars of investment in ERPs. Are you ready to throw that out?" Sengupta asked.
The solution, he suggested, is a slow conversion.
"For a long time, even if there is a blockchain cloud up in the sky, we will have to have a hybrid strategy," he said. Then once real-time visibility is achieved, railroads will have to decide to share the results with their customers. On this front, Thompson is optimistic.
"The trends in rail have been moving toward end customers having access and utilizing asset data more than in the past,” he said, adding that data ownership is coming up more often in contract negotiations.