PART of the genius of Abraham Lincoln, one of the most revered presidents of the United States, was his willingness to put differences aside for the good of the whole. Lincoln’s celebrated cabinet was a coalition of the president’s adversaries, often at odds with each other, but united under his stewardship to do what was best for the country in its most desperate hour.

The American freight railway in the 21st century, while not facing an American Civil War-level crisis, has experienced a worrying decline of its overall market share in the past couple of decades. Unfortunately, the at best siloed, and at worst adversarial, structure of the industry has often been to the detriment of overall service quality and performance, resulting in some shippers slowly switching to other modes.

Recognising the need for the sector to unite and stop the bleeding, in 2019 Mr Michael McClellan, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer at Class 1 railway Norfolk Southern, brought together like-minded executives at shortline operators Genesee & Wyoming and the Watco Companies, wagon leasing company GATX and wagon manufacturer, maintainer and leaser, TrinityRail, which cumulatively own nearly 20% of the North American wagon fleet. Together the companies founded RailPulse in October 2020, with the intention of harnessing data from their respective fleets to improve overall asset and service performance.

RailPulse is not working to solely maximise profits for its founders but to grow rail traffic overall, which will benefit all parties in the long run. Each of the partners has an equal stake and an equal share of the business. No single party is able to take control to ensure it remains representative of the needs and objectives of the wider rail freight sector.

RailPulse’s strategy is focused on the expansion of GPS technology and other telematics across the North American wagon fleet to precisely determine the location, condition and health of these assets. The thinking is that improved understanding of these factors will help to drive up service quality and increase confidence among shippers to use rail, benefitting all parties involved.

“How you determine if it’s loaded or empty, we don’t care. Be creative, be innovative, use your expertise as a vendor to build a better mousetrap.”

David Shannon, general manager of RailPulse

The coalition quickly secured a $US 7.9m grant from the US Department of Transportation Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (Crisi) Programme via the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDoT) to support their work to develop software systems and launch a large-scale pilot. PennDoT, alongside the founding partners, has also provided modest investment to support RailPulse’s early activities.

Mr David Shannon was appointed general manager of RailPulse in May 2022. Shannon, who has spent much of his career in telematics and vehicle tracking in various industries, is overseeing delivery of the pilot and will ultimately lead RailPulse’s transition into a commercial operation.

For the pilot project the initial focus was on identifying potential telematics vendors. Of the around 100 that were found and assessed by RailPulse and an independent consultant, 20 were selected to participate in a Request for Information (RFI) exercise. A total of 10 responses were received leading to the selection of three partner vendors for an initial year-long pilot project: Nexxiot, ZTR Control Systems, and Hitachi Rail Systems, working in partnership with Intermodal Telematics.

Shannon reports that five key analytical measures were selected initially for the pilot: location via GPS; whether the handbrake is released, which is important to avoid accidental movements and potential damage to wheels; impact; the loaded/empty state of the wagon; and whether doors and hatches are open or closed. Crucially, Rail Pulse has moved away from the rail sector’s traditionally prescriptive approach to adopting new technology, where the industry has directly designed, specified and certified what it requires.

Shannon explains that the rail sector led the way with tracking assets with the introduction of barcodes and early RFID systems for wagons in the 1980s, technology the sector is still heavily reliant on 40 years later. In contrast, the trucking industry has allowed market forces to drive the adoption of new technologies for vehicle tracking, most recently the Internet of Things (IoT), which has slashed the cost of tracking while increasing the range of factors these companies are able to monitor. “We innovated and then froze,” Shannon says. “They innovated and kept innovating because they were not stuck to a rigid technology specification that became hardened.”

As well as stunting innovation, a prescriptive approach is also unlikely to be attractive to IoT suppliers due to the relatively small size of the market for the North American wagon fleet; 1.6 million assets might sound like a large number, but this in reality is quite small for an IoT application, even if a single supplier secured the entire market, Shannon says.

“We took the approach of being open to as many industry telemetry applicants who were willing to go through what we call RailPulse certification,” Shannon says. “What it prescribes is the interface that must exist between the vendor and RailPulse, the minimum standards on data frequency, data timeliness, quality and accuracy. And it prescribes a handful of specific outcomes a vendor must deliver in order to be certified.

“We’re not prescribing a sensor,” Shannon continues. “We’re prescribing, for example, that you must be able to detect and deliver a load empty event, telling us that a railcar is loaded or empty at a minimum, and you must do it with high quality.

“How you determine if it’s loaded or empty, we don’t care. Be creative, be innovative, use your expertise as a vendor to build a better mousetrap. We don’t care about the mousetrap; we care about the outcome. And then as a vendor if you want to differentiate your product, and use that differentiation to help sell, you can overshoot our minimum requirement. And we will happily take the overshoot into the system.”

The pilot

The pilot is divided into three phases. Initial work focused on limited tests of the proposed vendor technology in freight yards, which was extended in the second phase to mainline testing. This has involved various wagon types ranging in age from new to 50 years old, all operating in the challenging North American rail freight environment of varying weather conditions and often harsh handling.

“We wanted to make sure that this technology, in principle, would work in practice in this very challenging environment,” Shannon says.

This work has been scaled up in the pilot’s final phase with around 2200 wagons equipped with RailPulse technology currently in operation. The acquired data from these assets is also feeding the RailPulse software developed by the coalition in parallel to the testing programme. A total of 12 companies who either own the wagons or are customers of these companies are now using the platform to monitor and record data on their assets, offering what Shannon describes as a “single source of truth” for the first time on location, health and condition of a single wagon.

“Instead of a shipper buying some hardware and sticking it on his consignment on a railcar, and then using that data against the railroad, or a railroad putting their own equipment on and using it against the shipper in a claim scenario, everyone is looking at the same data, we have a single source of truth,” he says. “Provided you have the right to that data, you can get access either through an API to feed your own system or gain access through a RailPulse portal.”

Shannon reports that the solutions presented and deployed by the vendors across the five pilot scenarios have often used the same principles but with subtle differences in how they are measuring or collecting the data. Interestingly, many of these techniques have evolved throughout the process, according to Shannon, who says one vendor did a complete redevelopment of the architecture of how they were measuring some data points after realising what they were doing was good, but not great.

“We’re working with all of them to say what we’re seeing and to make recommendations for changes, if the data is good or bad, or delivery is not as timely as it should be,” Shannon says.

As well as the vendors, RailPulse has signed a 10-year agreement with RailInc, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) subsidiary, to leverage its experience in managing vast volumes of data across the North American rail freight industry, as well as experience of providing 24-hour customer support.

RailInc is also supporting RailPulse to implement data management protocols, including data security, as well as to integrate wagon telematics device data into RailPulse’s backend systems. In addition, the agreement includes future data sharing arrangements. RailPulse will have access to RailInc’s wagon location message, waybill, and its Umler system which offers critical data on more than 2 million items of North American rail, steamship and highway equipment, enabling it to enhance its telematics data, which includes providing the capability to map telematics data to all parties in a given waybill route.

As the pilot steadily reaches its conclusion, Shannon says the plan is to “pull the wraps” off RailPulse in the second quarter of 2024, at which point it will be available as a commercial offer to any wagon owner who wants to participate.

The coalition has already grown from its five founding members to include another Class 1, Union Pacific, wagon manufacturer The Greenbrier Companies, and shortline operator Railroad Development Corporation (RDC) as well as a wagon-owning shipper, which will be annnounced soon. Shannon says further discussions are underway with other prospective members, including two Class 1s, another two large wagon-owning shippers.

Along with coalition members, there are opportunities for additional vendors to come onboard. While the pilot vendors are continuing to invest to improve their capabilities to deliver better quality information, others are still able placed to participate in the programme. For example, a fourth vendor currently working through the RailPulse certification process is potentially very attractive to a number of the coalition companies “because they are measuring the maintenance and health of a wheelset in a way that none of our existing vendors are,” Shannon says.

“That is going to give them an opportunity to compete because they’re coming in with a very innovative solution that does all the stuff we require and then does things that a number of our customers are saying are really important additional features that they want,” Shannon says.

Ultimately, he hopes that RailPulse becomes an “app store” where different providers can plug in their offer into a suite of services available to RailPulse users. “We’re not necessarily the creators of that IP,” Shannon says. “We’re providing the platform where value-added IP can be presented to customers so these producers can make money while driving the core goal of delivering better data to improve service to the shipper.”

Legacy technology

The task of equipping the entire North American wagon fleet is obviously large but is the ultimate objective for the project. This will in the “long, long term,” as Shannon puts it, help to eliminate legacy technology such as a wayside detectors and change the whole structure of the wagon monitoring system on the North American network.

In the medium-term Shannon says the priority is equipping the merchandise wagon fleet, and not intermodal, which he says mostly travels on unit trains that tend to run from point to point and are already equipped with a great deal of tracking equipment, nor hoppers for carrying coal.

“We are looking at grains, metals, ores, box car cargo, paper, lumber, plastic pellets, tank car cargo - all the stuff that has the potential to shift between modes,” Shannon says. “We have set ourselves probably the hardest problem because that is where the greatest variety of cars is. We’ve got everything from gondolas to various flavours of covered hoppers, to centre beam flats to regular flats to box cars of various and sundry types to auto racks. You name it, it’s there.”

Another key objective is to make joining RailPulse as frictionless as possible for the purchaser of a new wagon. Shannon says signing up should not be mandatory, but that the benefits of participating are so great that it becomes the default option.

How the recipients of the data ultimately use it is of course up to them. But Shannon believes that as railways become more comfortable with the platform, they are likely to change some of their operating practices to deliver better service. Equally, leasing companies and other fleet owners are likely to develop more creative maintenance strategies to keep asset quality high. There is also hope that shippers armed with better predictions of when empty and laden wagons will arrive will turn those shipments around faster, helping to improve planning and provide a much more pleasant experience for the customer, helping rail to compete more effectively with road.

“Because they’re all using the same data, our belief is that will give us a more valuable outcome,” Shannon says.

There is certainly an element of excitement about RailPulse. Numerous speakers and delegates at last month’s Railway Interchange event referred to its potential to improve service levels. How a diverse coalition had come together to find a solution that was right for the industry as a whole was especially noted. With just a few months until its official launch, the Team of Rivals behind RailPulse appear poised to deliver a new data-driven era for the North American rail freight industry. It might yet help to tilt the balance in its pursuit of modal share.

Advanced telematics make RailPulse possible

Brad Myers, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at Amsted Digital Solutions, explains to Kevin Smith how advances in telematics technology are making RailPulse viable.

CENTRAL to the success of the RailPulse programme are advanced telematics technologies. This sector has undergone sweeping changes in recent years as the technology has progressed, enabling suppliers to deliver more of what RailPulse’s members are looking for.

For example, improvements in telecoms capabilities have had a major impact. The advance from 2G to 3G, 4G and now 5G networks has reduced the size of the data packets and consequently the cost of data. This improved affordability has simultaneously increased the range of asset-monitoring capabilities that connected technologies can offer fleet and asset owners.

While not directly involved in RailPulse at this stage, one supplier that is keeping a close eye on developments is Amsted Digital Solutons (ADS). ADS has already tested or sold its BogieIQ technology to a number of the participants in RailPulse, says Mr Brad Myers, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at ADS, who was speaking to IRJ at Railway Interchange in Indianapolis. There are also a number of other solutions in the pipeline that could benefit current and future RailPulse users.

Myers explains that as well as telecoms, cloud computing infrastructure is probably the biggest change that has sped up the adoption of advanced telematics in rail. “From our perspective it provides a lot of scalability and security,” he says.

“We’re on an Azure cloud platform. Azure has its own machine learning (ML) tools integrated and one of the things we’re able to leverage is that we take our years of data, or billions of data points, and run different algorithms through that ML platform and extract the data from our servers. We don’t share that data with our clients, but we always have the option or opportunity to merge the data to find new patterns and different kinds of recognition. So, when we get new ideas from clients, we are able to actually go and test them in a quality environment to see what fits.”

Other technical advancements are evident in improved battery components, which have extended the life of some detectors to seven and in some cases 15 years. “We’ve also got a hybrid design on our solar panel,” Myers says. “The way we have configured it is unique to us and it has helped us extend the life of the product.”

Software updates

Over-the-air upgrades are another important development for ADS. This enables the company to update software and device capability without physically having to bring the wagon into the workshop. “We have onboard what I’d say is an oversized processor and an oversized memory,” Myers says. “So as we roll out new features, we’ve got enough onboard computing power and enough onboard enough memory to store the additional data and still make it valuable. That’s a big difference.”

These types of upgrades are expected to boost the performance of Amsted’s acoustic bearing detection technology, which Myers says the company is refocusing on in light of the major freight train derailment at East Palestine, Ohio, in February, restarting work that commenced shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic. ADS is now aiming to have a product on the market by the end of 2024.

Overall, Myers says ADS has come a long way since it embarked on its telematics journey in 2015. Back then the set-up was based on eight sensors, one on each bearing adaptor as well as brake force sensors and a gateway. “It was crazy expensive,” he says.

“But at the start we had to get enough field data to understand the dynamics around the entire wagon, and as we got to 2018-19, we realised that this is not going to be saleable - no-one is going to spend $US 3000 per car. So in the last two years we have gotten it down to this form factor.”

ADS has also benefitted from experienced staff, many of whom have joined from other industries, armed with an intricate understanding of IT architecture but also able to benefit from Amsted Rail’s wider rail industry expertise. “I think that has catapulted us forward in a big way,” Myers says.

Currently he foresees demand from customers to provide exception-based reporting, for example, identifying a wheel issue so that the asset can be removed from service. He says that ADS is “there on wheel health and brake health” and “pretty far along in its journey” on impact detection.

Overall, Myers says RailPulse has done great work to raise awareness in the North American freight sector of the possibilities and benefits that these types of digital technologies offer. He admits that many previously saw onboard detection as a bit of a “myth.” However, the programme is showing what is possible.

“If the RailPulse consortium and even the people not directly involved in RailPulse really do believe in the technology and want to get serious about adoption, you unlock a lot of potential for the industry,” he says.