Rail and Carriers

AI is reshaping transportation. Railroads can get on board or miss out

Will policy challenges derail freight rail's progress toward a sustainable future?

The following is an opinion piece written by Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads and published in Supply Chain Drives. Opinions are the author's own.

Feb. 7, 2020 - The White House recently issued draft principles for governing the use of artificial intelligence across sectors, including transportation. While a recent report noted the guidance may be too vague to produce substantive benefits, the larger point is clear. Various forms of AI are here to stay and will only become more ubiquitous.

That is unless public policymakers go to great lengths to inhibit progress. The industry I represent, one of America's oldest industries – privately owned freight railroads – stands in the crosshairs of this very discussion.

At issue rests a fundamental question that Silicon Valley innovators likely never contemplate: can established industries, such as freight rail, reimagine themselves through technology in an era of massive disruption?

As upstarts like Hyperloop One or the truck platooning company Peloton seek market entry, can freight rail deploy AI-like technologies that boost safety performance and productivity, and in turn maintain or grow market share? Or, will narrow debates – such as an ongoing regulatory dispute over the number of people needed in a locomotive cab – derail progress toward a sustainable future?

For freight railroads, which invest billions to maintain and modernize private networks, these questions are being answered in real time.

"The U.S. rail industry and the multi-billion dollar infrastructure it supports is well positioned to capture the benefits of new technologies that will automate systems to improve safety and provide better value to consumers," according to a report from the R Street Institute and TechFreedom.

Many technological solutions are already online, because a safe network is in the best interest of carriers and their customers. In fact, a single train has a wide network of people and technology monitoring its status and performance that goes beyond having one or two people in the locomotive cab.

"Continued evolution for large U.S. freight railroads, however, will be near impossible with two hands tied behind their back. The market won't wait."

While a car or a truck may use cameras, speed controls and advanced warning systems, railroads already deploy an all-of-the-above arsenal that provides dozens, if not hundreds, of checks on a single unit. It is akin to the "smart infrastructure" mentioned when discussing autonomous vehicles.

For instance, railroads are in the final stretch of implementing Positive Train Control, or PTC, on much of the mainline network. This anti-crash technology, made possible through a private wireless network and GPS mapping, will help prevent incidents caused by human error, including train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by excessive speed.

In addition, railroads use a time-tested tool known as a "locomotive alerter" that requires the train operator to confirm every minute he or she is driving the train. Failure to do so causes a train to shut down, thus ensuring even trains operated with only one person have attentive operators and are safe.

At the same time, track geometry cars can constantly monitor track integrity, and rely on a network of sensors to inspect infrastructure and equipment in real time. Coupled with big data analysis, these tools supplement traditionally manual functions and are proving better than human operators at identifying issues before they arise.

These digital tools provide an additional layer of oversight as railroads deploy ground personnel throughout the network to monitor trains and communication systems remotely.

While automated technologies have and will continue to change the rail workforce ... innovation in the sector and across the economy will be a net positive for the economy."

Common ground between management and labor should reflect these realities without barring the industry from deploying assets and people in the most sensible way in the future. After all, the Federal Railroad Administration – the regulator responsible for ensuring rail safety – recently ruled there is no need for regulation mandating minimum crew sizes.

In the more highly-regulated European environment, most freight trains operate with one person, while in Australia there is a long-distance freight train that is fully autonomous.

Many smaller railroad companies in the U.S., and almost all passenger carriers, deploy only one person in the locomotive cab. Indiana Railroad, for instance, runs over one-third of its operations with one person in the locomotive and maintains a sterling safety record after more than 20 years of doing so.

"Continued evolution for large U.S. freight railroads, however, will be near impossible with two hands tied behind their back. The market won't wait."

An inability to ultimately deploy one-person crews would "exclude freight rail from the increased productivity of the digital age, even with the widespread anticipation of self-driving cars and semis," Elliott Long, a policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute said in a Medium post.

In short, the freight rail industry should be able to gradually transition from two people in the locomotive of the cab to one onboard crewmember with the support of in-cab technology and on-the-ground conductors.

While automated technologies have and will continue to change the rail workforce – as they have for decades alongside safety gains – innovation in the sector and across the economy will be a net positive for the economy.

Railroads take trucks off roads, reducing infrastructure damage and carbon emissions in the process and. U.S. freight railroads can, on average, move one ton of freight more than 470 miles per gallon of fuel, making rail the most environmentally friendly way to move freight over land.

Railroads are reimagining the way they move freight, hoping to reach new safety levels, meet burgeoning demand and increase customer service. Technology is at the core of this effort. The public should support more innovation, not less.

SOURCE: Supply Chain Drive


Rise in Rail Traffic Boosts Port of Gothenburg Container Volumes in 2019

Port of Gothenburg

Jan. 27, 2020 - Newly published Port of Gothenburg freight figures for 2019 showed that container volumes at the Port of Gothenburg rose for the second year in succession. Container freight from the whole of Sweden is being increasingly channelled to the Port of Gothenburg by rail. In total, 456,000 TEU were transported through the port by rail — this is the largest rail volume in the port's 400-year history.

“Growth in rail volumes is reassuring on several levels. The fact that we are the port of Sweden – from north to south — is very obvious. It is also confirmation that our investment in the port’s transshipment potential and rail infrastructure is the right path to follow,” said Elvir Dzanic, Gothenburg Port Authority chief executive.

Container volumes, reported as 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs), rose during 2019 by three per cent to 772,000 units. The past two years have seen a marked increase in container traffic at the Port of Gothenburg. In 2018 growth stemmed mainly from the local catchment area – in 2019 it had the whole of Sweden as its base.

A great deal of long-distance freight for export comprises basic materials used in industry, such as steel, paper, and timber. These are generally transported by rail from inland locations to the Port of Gothenburg for onward transport by container ship to markets on the Continent.

During 2019, 456,000 TEUs passed through the port by rail, up 14 per cent on the previous year. The volume of containerised freight moving into or out of the port by rail rose from an already record-breaking level. The share of quay turnover transported to or from the port by rail is unequalled by any other major international port in the world.

“In 2019, the Port Authority adopted a new environmental goal where the company was set the target of reducing the port’s CO2 emissions throughout the whole of the Gothenburg region by 70 per cent through to 2030. To achieve this goal, the ongoing transition from road to rail is vital,” said Elvir Dzanic.

Through quarter three, the port of Gothenburg increased its share of the Swedish container market by one percent. The figure for the full year has not been established as the total volume for all Swedish ports is not yet available.

Slowdown in intra-European ro-ro volumes

Uncertainty in the European economy was reflected in the port’s intra-European ro-ro volumes, down six per cent on 2018. Prior to that volumes were historically high, reflecting the strong European economy at the time.

SOURCE: Port of Gothenburg


What Is Precision Scheduled Railroading?

Published by Union Pacific

October 2019 - Do you keep hearing about Precision Scheduled Railroading but wonder what that really means? The short answer is it’s a new service model many North American Class I railroads have adopted or are adopting in an effort to streamline operations. Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) looks a little different from railroad to railroad, but at its core it’s intended to benefit customers by providing consistent, reliable, predictable service. How are those goals achieved? Let’s take a closer look and chase down the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

How Did Freight Rail Service Work before PSR?

In the past, the North American rail service model focused on moving long trains in order to maximize capacity and yield the greatest efficiency. While railroads would operate both unit trains (a train moving a single commodity) and manifest service (trains carrying a variety of commodities), unit trains were the preferred method to move a train, since faster train speed (also known as “velocity”) was the ultimate goal.

However, operating this way didn’t always yield the best outcome for railroads or customers. Since railroads aimed to build long trains that would move faster, if a train didn’t meet a specific length requirement, it could be canceled (or “annulled,” as they say in the rail industry), leaving customers without service for the day. This “train focus” meant customer cars could sit for long periods of time before being picked up and delivered.

How Does Freight Rail Service Work with PSR?

Where railroads previously focused on moving trains, PSR shifts that focus to moving cars. So, instead of waiting for a long train to be built, trains are always moving and cars are picked up on schedule, regardless of train length. Velocity and train length are still important to railroads, but now, the focus on moving cars takes precedence.

What railroads found is that the focus on moving trains was actually slowing down the network overall and causing cars to sit for long periods of time in yards (a measurement railroaders call “dwell”) — and that’s inefficient for both railroads and their customers. And when overall rail network velocity slows, equipment does not cycle (return to its owner) as fast, meaning more unproductive cars are on the network. The result? Cars aren’t always available when needed, the network is congested and service isn’t as dependable.

In addition to promoting network fluidity and more reliable service, this shift in focus also yields another important advantage: As trains continually move through the network, it becomes more balanced — meaning the right resources, like crews, cars and locomotives, are in place when they are needed. For railroads, that means more effective use of resources. For customers, it means service is more reliable And they may not have to purchase as many rail cars for their private fleet. As rail cars go out then come back faster, greater rail car availability means fewer cars are needed overall.

What Does this Mean for Rail Customers?

Remember that the goal of PSR is to keep cars moving, reduce dwell and operate a balanced network, which in turn yields more reliable service. With that in mind, here’s how it works:

  • Rail cars don’t have to wait for trains to reach a certain length to be moved. So, when a car is scheduled for pick up, it will be picked up as scheduled, not canceled at the last minute.
  • When the car arrives at the serving yard (the yard where it lands prior to final delivery or departure) it will be picked up as soon as local service allows.
  • If the customer can’t receive the car on that day, they may be assessed a daily charge.
  • Except where proven to be the most efficient method, most cars will travel by manifest service, not unit train.

The result is reduced car dwell, which means better utilization of cars — and ultimately, more reliable and predictable service.

Rail Talk Is Confusing. What’s a Comparable Example?

To clear things up, let’s compare railroading to air travel.

Shifting from a train focus to a car focus: Imagine you’re going on a much-needed vacation to the Bahamas. You get to the airport and are so excited that you can already smell the salty ocean air. But then, while waiting at the gate, an announcement comes on saying your flight has been canceled because there weren’t enough passengers booked on the flight. What?! You’re told you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to catch the next flight when more passengers will be on board. So now you’ve wasted a vacation day from work and have one less day to spend on the beach. That’s frustrating, and it’s a waste of your time and money.

While airlines don’t delay takeoff just because a flight hasn’t reached maximum capacity, in the old model, trains did. In this example, keeping people from boarding until capacity is reached is a lot like holding cars until a train of a certain length is built. And, just like no one likes their vacation to be delayed, no one likes supply chain disruptions, either.

With PSR, this doesn’t happen. Instead of sitting in the yard waiting for a long train to be built, the car will simply be added to the next scheduled train. This approach eliminates variability, allows for more precise supply chain management, and results in more consistent transit times.

Balancing the network: Now, imagine you’re back at the airport in the Bahamas to catch your flight home. Once again, you can’t board — but this time, there are no planes or crews available because they’ve all flown out of the Bahamas, but haven’t returned yet.

That’s what happens in an unbalanced network — the resources needed to move your freight aren’t available. The PSR model works to balance the rail network and ensure the right resources are in place to move your products on schedule — in other words, making sure that crew and that plane are there to get you home.

What Are the Benefits to Shippers and Receivers?

Railroads like PSR because it increases asset utilization, improves service reliability and is a more efficient way of operating. But railroads aren’t the only ones who benefit.

Customers can expect more reliable, consistent and faster rail service that will in turn help them strengthen their overall supply chain and reduce costs.

More specifically, if you’re a customer of a railroad that leverages PSR, you can:

  • Expect a more accurate transportation plan and consistent rail service
  • Better meet your customers’ expectations and reduce supply chain variability thanks to more reliable service
  • Improve the utilization of your rail cars and other assets
  • See reduced transit times
  • Reduce the costs associated with supply chain disruptions

Although rail customers may have to adjust to some changes, the shift to PSR comes with many opportunities for improved freight shipping and total supply chain efficiency.

SOURCE: Union Pacific