THE ABILITY to track loads in real-time could make railfreight a significantly more attractive and affordable modal option for logistics companies. This is now possible through the use of new technologies that offer end-to-end visibility of goods being shipped while also helping to improve wagon utilisation.

The WaggonTracker system developed by PJ Messetechnik, Austria, aims to provide an easy and affordable means of tracking the location of freight wagons in real-time while supplying information on parameters such as speed and total distance travelled.

In the longer-term, this could help to reduce the total cost of ownership of freight wagons through better maintenance scheduling, operations planning and improvements in freight wagon utilisation.

WaggonTracker was launched in Austria last year and is now in use with open-access operator RTS Austria, which has installed the system on its wagon fleet, and a number of other European freight operators are also evaluating the system.

WaggonTracker is installed in the wheelset bearing housing fitted to the axleboxes of almost all European freight wagons. Securely enclosed within the housing are the electronics together with a GPS receiver and quad-band GSM module, the GPS and GSM antenna, and an integrated contact-free power generator, which is driven by the wheelset shaft. There is also space for an optional I/O sensor module, which gives meaning to sensor inputs.

The WaggonTracker's integrated contact-free generator recharges the onboard battery when the wagon is moving. This allows the GPS/GPRS function to provide the user with real-time location data (GPS position) of the actual freight wagon at a customised timing interval over the life-time of the system. For example data can be pushed to a central server every 10 minutes.

The system is able to provide an accurate calculation of kilometres travelled based on wheel revolutions per minute (rpm) measured over the generator. This data can then be fed into a wagon's preventative maintenance schedule to more accurately determine when subsystems and components need repair or replacement. The measurement of distance travelled can also help to determine the true whole-life commercial return on the freight wagon.

Journey times are analysed in detail, as average line running speeds between the regular interval updates are calculated and GPS speeds recorded at each interval cycle.

WaggonTracker provides other data, such as travel direction which is used to determine the orientation of specialised freight wagons or on-track maintenance machines. It will also provide immediate notification of any unauthorised wagon movement and is able to track the wagon on various mapping tools, such as Google maps. This ensures quick recovery from any potential theft.

WaggonTracker incorporates the latest GSM hardware, in the form of VGFN-8 SIM-chips. With an embedded chip it is possible to reference the unique identifier on the SIM-chip with the wagon identifier, making it easier to transmit data from the wagon to various data servers.

According to the manufacturer, the typical operating cost for a WaggonTracker in Europe is less than €10 per month, including all data roaming charges. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, GPRS is billed according to the amount of data transmitted and not the amount of time the connection lasts, and because the supplier has secured wholesale GSM/GPRS data contracts tailored for European data roaming.

Furthermore, the amount of data sent in each transmission is very small. For example, using an update interval time of 10 minutes over 30 days, there would be a maximum 4320 data updates, assuming that the wagon is used constantly over this period (which is highly unlikely). This would typically equate to less than 500kB per month.

Although the amount of data transmitted over 30 days is quite low, the overall data transmission costs would be relatively high due to data roaming charges across Europe, as most data roaming contracts for standard SIMs have a minimum charge based on 10kB of data sent within a foreign country, regardless of whether that amount of data was sent or not. For freight wagons criss-crossing European borders, this becomes a problem.

In an effort to mitigate this issue, PJM has secured wholesale GPRS data contracts with a number of mobile phone operators who specialise in machine-to-machine (M2M) roaming applications and wireless data transmission. These vendors have the infrastructure to deliver ubiquitous GSM/GPRS coverage, have pricing specially tailored for such low data volume telematics applications, and are required through long-term Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to provide consistent levels of wireless data connectivity across Europe.

The M2M system architecture guarantees secure data transmission from the WaggonTracker to various locations, depending on the customers' choices, using multiple Access Point Names (APNs) or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The system is capable of sharing raw data among various users, including operators, infrastructure managers, leasing companies, and customers.


WaggonTracker is fitted inside the axlebox, with installation taking no more than 30 minutes. Normally the unit is installed in the cover, while for a small number of non-standard freight wagons, the device is fitted in an additional ring between the axlebox and the cover.

At present most tracking systems on the market use either battery-based GPS asset-trackers, which rely on around one transmission per day to extend battery life and have limited recharge capability when in use (some use solar panels), or RFID tagging systems which rely on wayside tag readers to be installed at points along the route and can only give last known position updates if a wagon is stationary between readers.

WaggonTracker provides an immediate update notification, giving the exact location, when it detects that the wagon is stationary. It will also send a second update when motion is detected. Thus it is able to detect arrival and departure times at scheduled locations as well as the duration of any unscheduled stops. While the freight wagon is stationary the onboard batteries will last for several days.

The monitoring of cargo temperature during transport is becoming an important requirement for many industries as the financial, and in some cases environmental, risks of loads exceeding their specified temperature range can be considerable. In addition to temperature monitoring, humidity checking is often a requirement for transporting sensitive machinery. On lorries, these parameters are often monitored through telematics.

With an onboard regenerative power supply and an optional sensor module, WaggonTracker is also able to capture temperature information in real-time using appropriate sensors. The back-end systems are then able to capture the temperature sensor readings and produce customised reports such as a shipment's entire temperature profile, which can then be used as documentary proof showing compliance of the shipment against customer or regulatory requirements. This is something RFID tagging systems are unable to do, while battery-powered telematics systems only have limited capacity for temperature-monitoring over a long time period.

The sensor module can also monitor the condition of the freight wagon itself, such as wheel bearing temperatures and pressures on load-proportional valves.

TSI Compliance

The European Commission (EC) has long recognised the importance of data exchange and its benefits for transport. Regulations such as the European Technical Specification for Interoperability regarding Telematics Applications for Freight (TAF-TSI) have been developed to address the open-market data-exchange framework required for a modern railfreight network.

WaggonTracker can facilitate the implementation of this regulation by providing the necessary data directly to users, who in turn will use the TSI Common-Interface messaging protocols for peer-to-peer communications and accessing TAF-TSI Common Components. As a back-up, the M2M architecture can also facilitate secure transmission of different data sets to different users.

One particular TAF-TSI requirement, which WaggonTracker can support, is the reporting of a wagon movement (such as yard arrival and departure notification), wagon status (confirmation of loading or unloading), and wagon events (border crossing notification, destination arrival, transfer of the wagon to another operator, rerouting of the train). This information is vital for streamlining international wagon trip planning across Europe, end-to-end wagon trip monitoring and of course for automated/electronic consignment notifications, customs clearances, and customer billing.