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The Future of Rail Freight Transportation

In the world of freight transportation, ocean and air shipping play a significant role in the logistics industry, but there’s another mode that is often underestimated – rail.

Rail freight transportation has experienced downtime since the 1980s. The logistics world is changing, and it seems like rail is making a major comeback these days. New technology and innovations are disrupting every industry and all transportation modes.rail transportation

There are various changes and shifts in the logistics industry, that results in new demands and the need to deploy various transportation modes. Problems in the industry, such as the rising demand for capacity, gas emissions, and the aging generation of drivers are the main issues many logistics professionals face. Using rail transportation for your freight can probably solve some of these problems.


According to the Association of American Railroads, the rate of accidents on railroads decreased by 23% since 1980. There are more investments in rail infrastructure that are increasing the safety and efficiency of rail transportation. Rail offers a higher safety level because of less human involvement and the absence of highway congestion. Various technologies are being applied to improve safety, one of them being Positive Train Control (PTC) – an automated system that slows or stops the train in the case of possible accident or human error.


New technology innovations in rail transportation are at the peak of development. Automation, driver-less trains, big data, IoT and artificial intelligence are all new tools impacting rail transportation. For example, the automated system PTC is already used by 83.2% of the required Class I route miles nationwide and will be fully active by 2020. Many efforts drive towards eliminating human labor and human errors.

Greener Transportation

The most obvious advantage of rail over trucking is being less harmful to the environment. Rail can handle a much higher volume of freight and goes through a solid route than other transportation methods. Also, automation and faster transit times, in general, cause fewer carbon emissions into the environment.

Ultimately, rail can be a great logistics solution for your business. It is constantly developing into a better way to transport goods and is an eco-friendly and efficient solution among other transportation methods for your freight. 

Considering Rail Transportation

Have you ever shipped anything via railroads? Historically, rail transport hasn’t been the first choice for plenty of industries. However, more and more companies are switching from trucks to rail. Significant investments in the intermodal transportation in the recent decades made it more reliable, cost-effective and service-oriented.

Rail might not be the most efficient and economical option for short-hauls or last-minute moves which require the flexibility of a motor carrier. At the same time, it might be a great idea for pre-planned long-hauls, and moving from OTR to rail could benefit your supply chain in several ways.

Fuel Savings

Although the transit time might be slightly longer, shipping via rail can be 15-20% cheaper than OTR. The primary reason for it being the cost of fuel. According to research, rail is 3.5 times more fuel efficient than trucks. This result is based on the number of miles one ton of freight can travel on one gallon of fuel. Rail will quite often be a budget-saver on your long-hauls and cross-country runs.

Freight Visibility

Rail companies offer a much more sophisticated and advanced technology for tracking than most motor carriers. Intermodal companies have heavily invested in the GPS tracking and software which gives their customers complete visibility of their product in transit. Obtaining updates or getting the GPS tracking set up and working when shipping OTR might be quite a chore – most intermodal companies will give you this option by default.

Safer AlternativeiStock-536273155.jpg

Rail has much higher safety scores compared to motor carriers. Rail is generally less often involved in accidents or causes fatalities. The numbers for rail accidents and derailments are continuously dropping, making rail an even safer way to ship your freight. Additionally, trains are less likely to break down in transit which is a fairly common issue with trucks and results in recurring delays and missed RAD’s.

Go Green

Everyone knows it’s crucial to start thinking about the environment. Rail is the way to go if you are willing to lower emissions and reduce your company’s carbon footprint. It’s a much more environment-friendly alternative than trucks – it’s been calculated that rail is 6 times less carbon intensive. Rail doesn’t completely solve the problem and provide an absolutely 100% green solution for the transportation industry, but it still reduces the greenhouse gas emissions – even small steps make a difference.

Overall, intermodal carriers generally offer a more stable, reliable service and capacity. If your company often requires long-distance runs and is looking to cut down the high OTR costs, especially, when the volume goes up and OTR capacity tightens – researching rail options for your regular lanes might be worth your time.

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Are Railroads the Golden Standard of Real-Time Data?

Shippers and trucking companies alike could learn a few things from the ways rail companies, especially Union Pacific (UP), are implementing real-time, big data technology to overcome supply chain obstacles.

Union Pacific had several problems to address, and technology was the only solution.

UP’s Problems

Freight rail companies like UP face unique problems. There are 140,000 miles of railroad tracks across the U.S. that move 5 million tons of goods a day. Maintaining visibility into train and track conditions across this vast, high-traffic network is extremely difficult.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that most freight rail cars don’t have electric power. This means that RFID technology, which has been used by passenger trains since the early 90s, is not a viable means of visibility into train location.

The lack of electric power also means a lack of knowledge into train and track conditions. Heavy-duty trucks have the capability to utilize technology which can notify a carrier of truck malfunctions so that a crash or delay can be avoided as best as possible. Freight train cars do not have this capability.

The heart of the problem UP needed to fix was train derailments. When a train derails, it risks lives, causes delays and is costly. Derailments were hard to avoid due to low visibility and became a significant supply chain disruption for them and their customers.

UP’s Solutions

Given the rail car limitations UP faced, they deployed infrared sensors and small microphones at 20-mile intervals along frequently traveled lines. This technology provides real-time insight into equipment conditions. The data collected by track-side sensors is then sent to custom-built software that determines the best course of action should a problem arise.

Infrared sensors detect temperature levels on the track and in the wheels of the train. Microphones record and analyze acoustic signatures of wheels and bearings to detect possible malfunctions. Together, they provide a comprehensive view of wheel impact and overall train and track performance.

The custom algorithms accompanying their newest sensor technology turn this data into information. Within five minutes, a rail conductor can know if there’s a problem with their train and know whether to simply slow the train down to avoid a derailment or to stop the train altogether.

The Benefits

The result of UP’s technological investment is astounding. Union Pacific has reduced train derailments by 80%, reducing supply chain costs and increasing safety substantially. The company has decided to share it with the rest of the industry to reduce derailments everywhere.

This investment in technology has worked so well, UP has plans to implement more real-time data gathering techniques in the near future – likely moving on to video cameras for information on vibration, pressure and other safety measures.

Shippers and other carriers could learn a lot from this project. While freight rail companies may not be the most technologically savvy companies in the world, they are quickly and efficiently tackling some of their biggest obstacles with smart investments in technology.

Source: RTInsights

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