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— Compiled by Walter Weart
Technology continues to help railroads and shippers track, trace, protect and ultimately better manage their rail-car fleets. Asset monitoring technology also can help to drive better decision-making in rail yards. In other words, technology can help railroaders become better railroaders, and rail shippers become better rail shippers.
For a sampling of the technology available to help railroads and shippers get better at what they do, Progressive Railroading this summer contacted representatives from 12 asset-monitoring technology providers. In the second of a two-part series, we offer responses from the following six suppliers: Amsted Rail, Application Technology By Design Inc., EI Systems Corp., GE Transportation Optimization Solutions, Harsco Rail, RailTerm and TransCore.
(Editor's note: Part 1 — which featured responses from Industrial Networks Ltd., Lat-Lon L.L.C., Comet Electronics L.L.C., Railinc Corp., Softrail and Wi-Tronix L.L.C. — was published in our July 2013 issue.)
Amsted Rail's IONX offers the Edge asset and condition monitoring system, which leverages GPS technology, wireless sensor systems and cellular and satellite communication networks to provide information that seamlessly integrates with IONX software and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to enable customers to track and monitor the condition of their fleets, according to company literature. The products are intrinsically safe, certified to North American, European (ATEX) and rest of the world (IECEx) standards, according to the company.
Users can monitor the location and status of a rail car or other remote, unpowered assets — and the condition of critical components, such as hatches, bearing temperature and loads — in near real time. Wireless sensors nodes (WSN) that use ultra-low power protocols and an industry-rugged design provide customers with a highly reliable and flexible means to monitor these components. For more than five years, IONX has been deploying and advancing WSN technology in the rail industry.
"We can monitor both unpowered equipment and locomotives, ranging from hand brake settings to hatch covers on tank cars for chemical shippers," said Amsted Rail Vice President of Global Marketing Brad Myers, noting that the system reports events via the IONXlive website or directly to an ERP.
Users have the option to receive alerts by email or text message.
"Part of our task is to help the user select between the 'nice to know' and the critical information," Myers said. "It is a collaborative effort between the Amsted Rail Condition Monitoring Engineering team, IONX and the customer."
For example, the IONX Edge T-Series system improves the in-transit visibility of tank cars for "enhanced security of cars and cargo, and to assure regulatory compliance," according to the company. The system also can flag rail assets that sustain impacts beyond pre-set levels, enabling fleet managers to identify when and where the damage may have occurred. The system also can monitor loaded or empty cars to help managers minimize unauthorized asset use, as well as locate out-of-route cars.
Fully integrated with the "IONXlive" suite of applications, the Freight Car Maintenance Module is designed to enhance a manager's ability to view and track the fleet's maintenance history and current condition.
Application Technology By Design Inc. (ATBD) is a full-service system provider to "the non-Class I railroads and rail customers," said President Andrew Friend in an email. ATBD's services range from education and consulting to providing complete turnkey systems.
"ATBD provides systems to AAR standards that are completely interoperable and backwards compatible with existing host operating systems," Friend said. "The tools ATBD provides its customers are for field data acquisition with the ability to report this data to any host."
For example, the company has implemented AEI systems in support of Store In Transit (SIT) yards, petroleum rail-to-tank storage facilities, short lines, railroad holding companies, port operation, mining, power production, crude trans loading and rail ports.
ATBD's GPS solutions provide data for equipment location, arrival and departure reporting, speed performance, car and train handling techniques, status reporting and performance measurements.
"A typical customer would have a closed-loop system, where a locomotive or train set performs a repeating route, [and] where switching is contracted and used to monitor the performance of the contractor or a short line to help improve employee performance," Friend said.
EI Systems Corp. focuses on yard management to enable customers to "help yard operators who are still using 3x5 cards, paper records and Excel spreadsheets to upgrade to current technologies that are more user-friendly and far more effective," Vice President of Sales and Marketing Cliff Twaddle said in an email.
EI Systems uses both stationary and portable RFID readers along with advanced system integration to provide customers with "significantly improved visibility of what's in their yard, where it is and what its status is," Twaddle said. The company's customers range from large industrial shippers to small grain loaders to the Port of Montreal. Meanwhile, short lines use EI Systems' cellular-enabled handheld rail-car readers to improve the accuracy of data from their crews and the speed of information flow, Twaddle said.
The company also offers Rail Manager®, a stand-alone system designed to link to track-and-trace systems.
The web-based yard management system enables secure access from a PC; the company also plans to introduce a tablet-based application. Cellular capability enables real-time visibility and a database provides easy access to historical records. Twaddle said. The system displays a set of vital yard performance metrics and a multitude of configurable reports help yard managers keep track of their overall yard operations, he added.
EI Systems also has developed applications for portable RFID readers. Rail Mobile® and Rail Inspect®, both operated on handheld computers, enable real-time documentation of car inventory and car conditions, Twaddle said.
Interface and integration examples include railroad EDI/CLM, electronic links to rail scales, real-time car readers at loading racks, and integration to systems, applications and products (SAP), quality assurance and lab systems, and programmable logic controllers and process control.
GE Transportation Optimization Solutions provides transportation management software and analytics to the railroad industry. The software is used to manage rail and intermodal operations; signal and communication assets; rail-car repair billing and inventory; and multi-modal visibility, planning and execution for industrial shippers and logistics service providers.
Monitoring rail supply chains is "essential but challenging" because the individual rail lines can provide visibility on their routes while adding multiple carriers and routes — all of which is making information collection increasingly challenging, said Senior Vice President, Global Sales Kirk Knauff. GE's transportation management system features include current location of all rail cars and can gather detailed information on cars by location. Reports with additional details on each shipment — including a continually updated ETA, transit times and lane performance — also can be generated.
The company's ShipperConnect Rail Supply Chain Execution System is a cloud-based suite of products that uses "track and trace" to provide shippers and 3PLs the software and solutions they need to manage rail operations, process inventory and control transportation assets, Knauff said.
ShipperConnect Rail Yard Management, which integrates with plant operation systems and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, is designed to simplify complex operational planning and execution of rail-car movements and inventory inside a plant. The "information rich" graphical display eases workflow planning, tracking and management of rail-car shipments, according to company literature.
"Our graphical representations of facilities, track layout and customized process flows can significantly provide a complete inventory of loaded and empty cars," Knauff said, adding that the user can view details on any shipment, issue move orders within a plant and view rail cars in transit.
Over the years, Harsco Rail officials received requests for information such as location, equipment condition and related data from the control systems on Harsco machines, said Senior Director of Intelligent Solutions Jim Resio in an email. Although Harsco's Jupiter II Control System captured much of that data, users wanted a system that could retrieve it easily and display it, Resio said.
In April, Harsco Rail released COMPASS™, a telematics solution designed to monitor location awareness, asset analysis, productivity management and maintenance tracking. COMPASS provides a graphical representation of machine activity with daily alerts for required maintenance, engine faults, and diagnostics. Using cellular or satellite communications, a machine's condition and performance data are uploaded to a central location. COMPASS sends messages to the server whenever there's an event or status change, depending on the machine mode, such as "working" or "idle."
COMPASS, which can be installed on a variety of industrial equipment types, connects directly to the machine's control system. In addition, industry specific applications and sensor kits provide advanced capabilities tailored to the machine's specific needs.
Harsco Rail had been beta testing the technology with several Class Is, a railroad contractor and a transit-rail customer, Resio said. The company also has installed COMPASS™ units on equipment produced by several of the company's sister divisions, including Harsco Metals & Minerals, to demonstrate values on industrial equipment, Resio added.
RailTerm is a rail services contractor that provides railway operators with a range of custom services, including terminal management, track and signal maintenance and dispatch services. The company also offers TrainMaster rail traffic control software, a Windows™ based solution that integrates all rail operations and accommodates each client's operating rules.
RailTerm's Authority Adherence Monitoring System (AAMS) compares GPS location information with the active movement or work authority, Vice President — Signals & Communications Jason Fries said in an email. The AAMS wayside unit communicates with the TrainMaster dispatching software to monitor rule adherence. If there's a violation, AAMS sends an alarm to the mobile field terminal and dispatcher, but it does not enforce the alarm condition, Fries said.
RailTerm also offers a tablet platform to electronically deliver bulletins, digital authorities, proximity to work zones and real-time track displays to field terminals, Fries said.
"We are currently testing Phase I of Digital Authorities with RailTerm's in-house C&S maintenance group on CTC territory," he said. "Digital Authorities will allow MOW employees to request, receive and cancel a work authority electronically from the dispatcher without the need for verbal communications."
To-date test results with Digital Authorities show that there's "great potential" to increase the efficiency and improve safety over conventional, paper-based field forms, Fries added.
"Once Digital Authorities and AAMS are integrated on field terminals, I see this as a powerful tool to increase situational awareness, safety and overall efficiency of the dispatching process," he said.
TransCore offers traffic management systems, intelligent transportation systems, systems integration, design consulting, operations, maintenance, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology manufacturing and web-based logistics systems.
In the early 1990s, the Association of American Railroads adopted TransCore's Amtech wireless RFID technology as its standard, noted TransCore General Manager of RFID and Asset Tracking Products Clint Duncan in an email. This led to the use of two TransCore AEI tags on all rail cars in North American interchange service, he added.
"Today, more than any other time, in-transit asset visibility into location, status of a load, maintenance status or avoiding the asset sitting empty in the rail yard poses an extraordinary communication process among multiple systems in an expansive transportation network," Duncan said.
Historically, AEI readers have been stationary, but rail operations requires flexibility and portability. In late June, TransCore released the Encompass 1150 mobile RFID reader — "a portable and cost-effective mobile reader for decoding or verifying RFID tags," Duncan said. Users can view tag data on a high-contrast display, and the lightweight, ergonomic reader "works with virtually all U.S. standard tag protocols," he added.
Tag data can be transferred from the reader to a notebook computer, desktop PC or smartphone using a USB cable or wireless Bluetooth connection. The reader is compatible with Windows® XP, Vista and 7 (32- and 64- bit versions) operating systems.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based freelance writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.