Like all other transport modes, the freight rail industry has been seeking to develop advanced technologies not only to lower carbon emissions but also to further its market share. Explorations into deploying locomotives powered by batteries or hydrogen, as well as initiatives aimed at data sharing and improving network flows and supply chain visibility through improved data analysis, are just some of the actions currently underway by the freight rail industry.
Much attention has been given to technology that might have a longer-term implementation timeline. But there are also industry efforts to develop technologies that can be implemented in a nearer-term time frame.
“The adoption cycle for new technologies in the rail industry tends to take some time. The rail industry does not change overnight,” Alan Fisher, Wabtec (NYSE: WAB) vice president of growth and innovation, told FreightWaves. “I would say that our approach to that has been threading a needle of how do I provide our customers with technology today while also having that product serve as a building block to automation that we think will occur three to five years-plus down the road.”
Industry explores near-term uses of automation
Examples of longer-term investments in advanced technologies serving the railroads are plentiful. The recently passed infrastructure bill includes a university grant program to fund passenger and freight rail research.
Meanwhile, the Pueblo, Colorado-based Transportation Technology Center Inc. recently changed its name to MxV Rail as a means to recognize its planned move to newer facilities while remaining a center for exploring and testing advanced technologies. The facilities will include a high tonnage loop for accelerated service testing, curve negotiation loops, as well as additional track infrastructure necessary to support testing to obtain certification from the Association of American Railroads.
The name MxV is based on the formula for momentum — mass times velocity — and the name change evokes “our dedication to creating the momentum needed to move our industry forward … and [help] solve the industry most pressing challenges — immediate and long term,” said MxV Rail President and CEO Kari Gonzales earlier this month.
But companies are also developing technological solutions that could serve as near-term gateways to long-term initiatives such as automation.
“The most obvious example to me is readying terminals for automation. Navis had an announcement last year about the Navis N4 Implementation at Victoria International Container Terminal — the first fully automated terminal in Australia,” said Tom Forbes, head of rail for Navis, a terminal operations platform provider. “That is a good case study of that — allowing a customer to upgrade as they implement automation.”
Fisher said although Wabtec’s Trip Optimizer product can address improving current network efficiency, it has been created in such a way that it can also be updated to include advances in automation.
If Trip Optimizer currently functions as a kind of cruise control in the rail yards for rail operators, advances in automation might enable Trip Optimizer to engage in that cruise control function more quickly, Fisher said.
Another example is being able to use near-term technological advances in automation to serve rail customers that are very close to terminals through the use of trains operated by remote control. It could also mean using drones to control the operations of trains.
“We think that the boundaries of a yard are extending and that for some of those first- and last-mile kind of endeavors, rail operators will be able to use our Locotrol product to remotely control trains,” Fisher said.
According to Wabtec’s website, Locotrol entails using “advanced distributed power systems that enable remote control of locomotives in separate consists from the lead locomotive.”
Collaboration can be key element to near-term implementation of advanced technologies
Meanwhile, fine-tuning existing technology through collaboration with other companies is another way to further the implementation of advanced technologies in the near term.
Last week, drone manufacturer and solutions provider American Robotics acquired Ardenna, an image processing and machine learning software developer for rail monitoring and inspection.
American Robotics says the acquisition will allow the company to leverage its fully autonomous Scout System with Ardenna’s advanced analytic software aimed at conducting track and network inspections via drones.
Another benefit of the acquisition is having a data engineering team already on board at American Robotics that can work with talent from Ardenna to further develop Ardenna’s offerings as well as offerings to other industries besides rail, according to Reese Mozer, co-founder and CEO of American Robotics. American Robotics itself was acquired by Ondas Holdings (NASDAQ: ONDS) in May 2021. Ondas is a wireless network company that designs telecommunications platforms for industries with critical infrastructure needs: utilities, oil and gas, transportation — including rail — and government.
“Customers really require an end-to-end full-stack solution because if you drop off half of a product, they’re not going to find much value from it,” Mozer said.
A full-stack solution is a package offered to rail customers consisting of the drone hardware and software, approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drones and industry-specific payload and analytics software that gleans data insights from the drones.
The integration of Ardenna’s suite of technology with American Robotics’ offerings could result in many benefits, notably a drastic reduction in train derailments, Mozer said.
“The Ardenna team predicts that once this technology is used broadly, 90% of train derailments can be stopped before they occur because we’re able to image all of this track at a very high fidelity, in very high frequency,” Mozer said. “That’s the power of automated drones. You don’t need human labor to do the time-consuming process of just gathering the data. You can cover a lot more area and do so at high resolutions.”
American Robotics’ parent company, Ondas, said in a statement to FreightWaves that the fast pace of technological innovation doesn’t necessarily conflict with the railroads’ long-term views on investment.
“We believe that the long-term thinking of Class I railroads aligns well with Ardenna’s vision for the future of railway inspection, maintenance and operations. The application of today’s drone technologies and AI-based software can provide quantifiable value in the near term while the development towards fully autonomous systems, high-speed and high-bandwidth communications and big data analytics evolves over the long term.
“This evolutionary approach also enables the cultural shifts to occur that such technology adoption will likely require. Ardenna envisions a future where real-time, on-demand track integrity assessments, rail asset monitoring and predictive analytics for rail maintenance become an integral part of the long-term strategic planning of railroads.”
Approaching supply chain visibility holistically
Much media attention has already been given to improving supply chain visibility — and for good reason. Stakeholders are seeing the value of using shared data to improve network flows across the overall logistics landscape and to and from the ports.
The supply chain has physical limitations, and any initiatives that provide rail customers with visibility into their shipments are “the kinds of initiatives that folks have been supportive of,” Fisher said.
The freight railroads’ challenges with achieving supply chain visibility are similar to those of the ocean and long-haul transportation modes, according to Frankie Mossman, chief customer officer at Overhaul, an Austin, Texas-based company that has created an online platform for supply chain risk management.
All these modes have challenges when it comes to visibility, predictability and integrity of cargo, and for the railroads, this translates into longer dwell and unpredictable arrival times, Mossman said.
Addressing these challenges is where companies can develop near-term advanced technological solutions, she said.
“As rail lines start to invest in real-time tracking via siloed control towers with passive tracking via video and other equipment tracking, technology companies need to be prepared to integrate and visualize data into a single unified view aiding in connecting transitions, routes and yards into a comprehensive status of the container and ultimately the goods,” Mossman said.
She said Overhaul’s cargo-tracking platform, Sentinel, takes data and corroborates it with data from the railroads, the freight forwarders and the shippers to provide a collaborative status that is transparent and identifies when cargo can be at risk.
“Technology companies need to focus on the specific railroad problems and challenges. Overhaul is already comprehending key issues with connecting data and qualifying the data for major Class I lines. Ultimately they need to keep track of equipment, cargo and schedules while keeping their customers informed,” Mossman said.
Forbes echoed Mossman’s sentiments: “The relationship between vendors and railways needs to be one of collaboration and joint innovation. “On the one hand, for railways to plan their long-term capital investments they need to know what is possible with technology and ensure they have vendors who can support them along the way.
“On the other hand, vendors need to look to the future capital plans of railways and be building solutions that will leverage and add value to those investments.”