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RailPulse members proceed into final stage of testing telematics technologies in freight cars

24 January 2023
Reading time ~ 5 min
Freight train of Norfolk Southern in Tennessee, USA, 23 December 2022
Freight train of Norfolk Southern in Tennessee, USA, 23 December 2022. Source: Peyton Gupton/flickr
Ivolgina Anna, Editorial Contributor to International Projects, ROLLINGSTOCK Agency
Reading time ~ 5 min
Stolchnev Alexey, Russian Projects Editor, ROLLINGSTOCK Agency

USA: This year the RailPulse joint venture, consisting of the country’s several major operators and car builders, is preparing to bring a telemetry system to the market. It will provide real-time visibility of location, health of the railcar and condition of its freight.

RailPulse JV was established in Autumn 2020 by five members:  car builder TrinityRail, leasing company GATX, operators Norfolk Southern, Genesee & Wyoming and Watco. At that moment these operators accounted for about 20% of North American freight car fleet. The financing of the project was partially provided by the US Department of Transportation’s grant worth $7.9 mln. Later RailPulse was joined by another largest car builder Greenbrier and operator Union Pacific.

The telemetry system, developed within RailPulse, includes equipping railcars with sensors, which should provide real-time visibility and send three major indicators to the cloud-based platform: location, health of its components (bearings, buffers, couplings and other parts) and freight delivery conditions (whether doors/hatches are open or closed, temperature and humidity inside the car, whether excessive impact has been detected as well as other parameters).  For the pilot project RailPulse selected three telematic sensor vendors: Nexxiot, ZTR and Hitachi Rail. Phase 1 of testing, started in spring 2022, included validation of the telemetry hard and software from each vendor on a few cars.

Nexxiot GPS sensor installed in the Union Pacific’s freight car under the RailPulse project Nexxiot GPS sensor installed in Union Pacific’s freight car under the RailPulse project. Source: Union Pacific

RailPulse began Phase 2 of the project in July 2022. Each of the seven project members committed to equipping 50 railcars with the same suite of sensor functionalities for a total test fleet of approximately 350 cars, testing them in movement about the rail network in day-to-day operations. At that time RailPulse said they are continuing to validate telemetry hardware performance, as well as standardize the installation process for instrumenting five different railcars types that include gondolas, boxcars, hoppers, tank cars and auto racks.  A key challenge was to achieve accurate telematics performance when parts and components vary among railcar type.

Phase 3 of the pilot slated to begin late in January – early in February. By that time RailPulse members should finalize equipment of additional 650 cars with sensors. Those cars will participate in the testing cycle through this year when a final report on technology’s performance is scheduled to be issued. Data from the railcars will be sent from the telemetry vendors’ systems to the cloud-based RailPulse platform where it will be enriched with other rail data, compiled, analyzed and delivered to subscribers. During Phase 3, RailPulse also plans to formalize the telemetry vendor certification requirements. The RailPulse telemetry system, including on-line platform, is due to launch by second-quarter 2023.

In addition, within JV RailPulse one of its members, TrinityRail, launched in 2021 its own Trinsight platform to track the location of freight cars, their technical condition, as well as a number of other indicators in real time.  It was stated that the platform should process data from 132,000 cars owned and operated by Trinity Rail in North America (the car builder has its own leasing division). It was planned to integrate machine learning into the system for predictive analytics.

Today Europe is leading the use of telematics in freight cars. In particular, Nexxiot says that about 200,000 freight cars are equipped with its sensors, which is more than 25% of the European operators’ fleet. Last year Rail Cargo (part of the OBB) reported that its 11,000 freight cars are equipped with telematic sensors. In addition, by 2021, 63,000 freight cars of DB Cargo were equipped with Siemens telematics devices.

Introducing telematics to freight cars is considered in Russia as well. The main telematic suppliers at the moment are the R&D enterprise Ratorm and Center2M. In October 2022 a draft standard addressing requirements of monitoring and diagnostic systems for freight cars was submitted. Additionally, RM Rail reported that in 2023 it plans to install Ratom telematic sensors in 70 of its 19-1299 hoppers with aluminium body. Sensors used to track various parameters are already employed in series-production hopper batchers 19-6940 (manufactured by Sinara Transport Machines) and in 16-5213 refrigerated cars of RusRef (produced by Uralvagonzavod).