OIL production centres are emerging beyond existing pipeline networks in the United States, but constructing crude oil pipelines is expensive, and weighed down by long-term transport contracts. Pipelines are also limited by fixed shipping and delivery locations. Transporting oil by rail allows shorter-term contracts with shippers to boost flexibility in the dynamic oil market.

While only 6.5 million barrels of crude was transported by rail in the US in 2011, by 2016 this had risen to 121 million barrels. However, the increased movement of oil by rail comes with its own share of challenges. The growing number of new oil finds, and transport of oil from these finds, has led to a surge in oil spill incidents.

Most accidents that result in oil spills are the result of derailments. Major causes of derailment are broken rails or welds, buckled tracks, obstruction, and main-line brake operation failures. Abnormal train speed, weather conditions and human error can also cause accidents. Human errors such as misclassification and loading the wrong type of wagon carry high risk as they can lead to greater problems for the entire train. With rail transport of crude oil increasingly under public and government scrutiny in the US and Canada, regulators are clamping down on unsafe practices.

Both the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have laid down regulations to prevent derailment of tank wagons carrying inflammable liquids. The regulations impose heavy penalties on rail operators that fail to follow prescribed procedures. Regulatory bodies routinely conduct unannounced spot inspections, sampling, and monitoring the movement and classification of crude oil throughout the country to ensure compliance. In addition, Department of Transportation (DoT) regulations and hazardous material regulations (HMR) apply to all shipments of more than 3.8 million litres or for every train of 35 tank wagons or more carrying hazardous materials.

The scope of the regulations for shippers includes the processing, testing and classification of the fluids to ensure stability during transport as well as availability of all information required during an emergency. The regulations also cover the inspection of the tank wagon to ensure that guidelines relating to wagon material, valve specifications, burst pressure, for example, are met. Finally, shippers must issue a shipper’s certification after classifying, describing, packaging, marking, labelling, and ensuring that the conveyed fluids are fit for transport.

Railway regulations broadly cover the integrity and fitness of items such as tracks, rolling stock, and brake mechanisms, that can impact the safety of the fluids being transported. The guidelines also mandate active monitoring of routes and diversions, as well as parameters like load levels, vibrations, temperature, wheel profiles and moving parts trends throughout the trip. Railways are expected to file detailed trip and emergency contact information with the State Emergency Response Commission (Serc), as well as invest in the required tools and training to ensure they meet all guidelines.

The Internet of Things (IoT) enables rail operators to leverage internet-connected communication devices installed across infrastructure and rolling stock to increase safety. The connected setup helps monitor and report on the product and its environment, giving users the ability to respond to changing data. IoT ensures regulatory compliance and enhances efficiency of existing infrastructure by using RFID, GPS, sensors and actuators that implement checks and balances to reduce hazards. IoT solutions can also be integrated into the design and production of tank wagons, helping manufacturers upgrade existing wagons or deliver new vehicles in compliance with new specifications. For example, by equipping all rolling stock transaction and maintenance points with RFID readers, the load data can be linked to the wagons.


With IoT, all track maintenance activities are recorded and updated to provide real-time operating conditions of the track, such as speed restrictions. This data, along with the real-time positions, can be displayed on a central dashboard, as well as on the mobile devices of field staff.

Modular IoT apps can help to enhance operations across different functions. The modules can be implemented independently and integrated at a later stage. An app to determine material and tank class can help incorporate safety norms based on the new regulations for testing, determining hazard class, monitoring pre-loading activities, and providing approvals and reports. The app can be designed to support the following functions:

  • create a transaction-based system for initiating various test procedures before loading
  • generate reports for different labs and products and a time stamp
  • capture material composition and property tests and a time stamp
  • enable a robust workflow for assigning responsibility to staff at various stages of testing for each product batch before and after fresh stocks are mixed
  • record rolling stock with serial numbers, permissible loads, and material carrying approvals
  • create a workflow for checking and recording tank wagon fitness, capacity, and packaging group
  • record approvals of statutory activities with workflows before loading, and
  • generate test reports or create consolidated master reports for regulatory authorities.

A safety lock app allows physical activities such as loading only after the tank and shipper’s certificates are generated and mandatory tank preparation activities such as cleaning and purging are completed. It can ensure that a shipper’s certificate is issued only after all test reports are produced according to the guidelines, and that it is released only after validation by an inspector. It can also ensure that the shipper’s certificate provides a unique identification number for the shipper and creator, a lot number for the product loaded, as well as the date and relevant test results.

With this app, the tank safety certificate can be created only after tank material class, specifications, and fitness test reports are submitted according to the guidelines. It only releases the certificate after approval by the inspector and the approver, while providing authorised senior staff the ability to overturn subordinate decisions and create supporting documentation.

A terminal automation app can ensure that the right quantity is loaded in the right tank wagon in compliance with regulatory norms and can help to generate data for invoicing and commercial transactions. The goal is to prevent loading of tank wagons and generation of a dispatch document if rules and processes are not adhered to. The loading arm can be activated or locked automatically providing the loading authorisation is generated. Using RFID, the app can eliminate tank wagon mismatch during loading. It can set the minimum tank wagon outage at a reference temperature, based on whether the wagon is insulated. The app can be used to activate an RFID tag attached to the tank wagon containing essential product quantity, destination, and hazard class information. Additionally, operators can incorporate pre-shipment functions into the app to check and record mandatory post-loading activities such as valve closures and shipper certification, and to match packaging group with material class.

An RFID app can be used to disseminate information about the tank and its contents without the need to search hard copy documents. It helps pull detailed information on tank safety certification, shipper’s certification, and loading authorisation from a central server. Additionally, it can enable tracking of tank wagons, shipments, and rakes on a GIS map, while continually updating the consignment status. The RFID tags attached to the tank wagon typically include a permanent tag containing its number and specifications, and a temporary tag for the material transported. There would also be a temporary rake tag for the locomotive and the last wagon, containing consolidated information from all permanent and temporary tags attached to the train.

Tags can be created at loading or intermediate shunting points and the information captured in a central database, with RFID readers placed at all rolling stock transaction and maintenance points. As wagons pass the RFID readers, they capture information on trains leaving loading points, empty rolling stock leaving unloading points, and wagon numbers and any faults. The app can crosscheck the tank wagons in the train at any given point in time, while tracking all rolling stock in the network, and issuing reports and alarms based on the data collected. RFID readers also help to update the central database after a fault is rectified and analyse its history as well as rolling stock fitness. The locomotive is also fitted with a GPS device that tracks trains and all attached tank wagons online. Finally, the RFID app helps to generate reports for the FRA and Serc.

By using automation and human machine interfaces, railways can access graphics and GIS-based visualisations of train control, monitoring, and maintenance on a dashboard. With all types of risk and threat information available at a click, operators can take preventive action and plan financial outlay to mitigate threats.

The app can be divided into submodules, with each sub-model representing a different category of risk, with respective monitoring and mitigating activities along with defined outcomes. In addition to regular manual track inspections, machine vision robotics can be used to detect defects in cut spikes, rail anchors, and turnout components.

By storing inspection data digitally, operators can conduct trend analyses of track conditions to ensure preventative maintenance strategies and reduce track structure degradation. Section-wise information collated from individual programmes including track encroachment, condition, support, metal loss and joint monitoring, can help to achieve an aggregate score. Since parameters to interpret risks or consequences of faults are typically subjective, this information can be entered manually. Sensors used to track tank wagons can help capture faults, issue alerts and service orders for preventative maintenance, and generate reports and alerts on train fitness tests.

Equipped with a workflow for approvals as well as the ability to identify, design and manufacture defects, the reporting app thus aids the probability-risk analyse. The app can also quantify risks, determine consequences, as well as assign aggregate risk scores and probabilities. The sectional integrity score, displayed on a GIS map, helps to describe the vulnerability of a section. The app makes it easy to generate and distribute reports to Serc, FRA, and other regulators, and can be designed to publish and update mitigation plans for accidents, and capture information on emergency response, training status, and schedules of emergency responders.

During emergencies, the app can facilitate unified call centre-based communication with surrounding communities, as well as list emergency equipment and their locations for quicker response. Additional functions could include round-the-clock management of the train loading workforce, and locomotives, interlockings, and braking applications. Finally, as the app matures, operators can automate controls such as stopping trains based on system-generated threat perceptions, and in case of impending accidents, inform stakeholders and disaster management teams by SMS or phone.

A GIS framework adds a spatial dimension to database management and enables centralised access to location-specific data in many formats. Regarding notifications from DOT, PHMSA, and FRA, the GIS application can display:

  • routes on which the hazardous products are transported, to help Serc or emergency responders view train traffic, terrain, and surroundings
  • movement of loaded trains and shipments
  • specific tank wagons on a map
  • maintenance activities on a map for workforce or logistics planning
  • what-if analytics for route planning
  • emergency centres, medical facilities, and other support infrastructure
  • region-specific reasons for faults or accidents, using fault and incident analytics, and
  • information to analyse train movement and safety measures through integration with weather maps.

Advances in radar technology, drones, satellite and infrared imagery, and optical image analytics, make it easy for operators to develop object detection apps. These monitor tracks to identify objects that could derail trains. They can be deployed to monitor the rail network for potential threats, by tracking soil erosion, vegetation growth, or changes in habitation patterns.

Mobile disaster management apps provide maintenance teams with data across large stretches of the rail network. The app can be integrated with Google Maps, distance calculator, and route and weather reports, for more comprehensive information. In addition, it can provide product information for effective firefighting and spill containment to help minimise environmental damage. To support quick fault rectification, operators can integrate it with asset service management apps. Additionally, sensor data from the field can transmit photographs and field data. The app can be integrated with dashboards to provide more contextual information.

An anti-roll-away app is ideal for taking precautionary measures or issuing alerts. Whenever a train is parked or left unattended, the driver can issue an anti-rolling alert, and the train’s status can be recorded on a server. A GPS device then tracks the position of the first tank wagon or locomotive and the last wagon. The device issues an alert if movement is detected in these two vehicles and can also shut down the locomotive. If the train has a remote central brake locking facility, the app can automatically engage the brake.

The oil and gas industry has witnessed several fatal train accidents during the last few years, underscoring the need for better safety standards. The emergence of IoT-based apps is a step towards enhancing operational safety in the transport of petroleum products by rail.