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New regulations, innovative technologies and changes in the coal market are fueling new trends in rail shipping. While rail has often remained the most efficient means of long-distance ground transport, it hasn’t always moved quickly with technology. Experts say the industry is upgrading facilities and locomotives with new technologies that are not only improving safety and maintenance but also creating new efficiencies and optimizing operations.
Increased Intermodal Shipping
A decline of coal production and the bankruptcy of several major coal companies in the U.S. has recently put a big pinch on the rail industry. The Association of American Railroads reports that revenues from intermodal transport accounted for more revenue than coal from 2013 to 2015. Railroads have also been investing more in expanding their infrastructure in anticipation of further growth in intermodal truck-to-rail shipping.
Norfolk Southern Railways’ $2.5 billion expansion of the Crescent Corridor in 2012 opened 30 new lanes of rail across 2,500 miles between New Orleans, La., and Trenton, N.J. BNSF has also completed a $3.5 billion expansion of its Northern Corridors to offer faster intermodal service between Seattle, Wash., and Chicago, Ill.
John Ireland, project manager with R.L. Banks & Associates in San Diego, says many recent expansions have been designed to better support the integration between truck and rail. He points to Union Pacific’s Santa Teresa Intermodal Ramp which opened in Santa Teresa, N.M., in 2014 to expedite cargo movement across the entire country with proximity to the biggest maquiladoras in Mexico. The $400 million state-of-the-art facility has an annual lift capacity of 225,000 units and features refrigerator container and trailer refueling, along with 1,200 container and trailer parking stalls. The facility is using a number of advanced technologies such as an Automated Gate System (AGS) that has improved gate/terminal throughput and turn times.
“[Rail shipping] is really heading toward [facilities] with more integrated communications and energy between rail and truck. Much like at large ports, they’re all continuing to better integrate the movement of these containers from ship to rail and so on,” says Ireland.
Technology Improves Safety
In the past few years, the rail industry has also been implementing new technologies to improve safety. In 2008, Congress passed a mandate in 2008 requiring the country’s privately -owned railroads to finance, develop and install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology across all 60,000 miles of the rail network by the end of 2015. The implementation deadline was later granted a three-year extension to the end of 2018. PTC uses sensors and communications technology to automatically stop a train before certain types of incidents occur. Ireland says PTC implementation affects the majority of mainline railroads in the U.S. and requires a complete overhaul of every locomotive and signaling system on the railroad. “It’s a very big undertaking. That has been the most pressing technological issue in the rail industry for the last few years, and I think it will be going forward,” says Ireland.
Many trains are now also using electronically -controlled pneumatic braking systems (ECP), which was suggested by a mandate on the federal level to be used on any train carrying hazardous waste.
The rail industry has also been seeking other ways to improve safety. John Tuna, director of the Office of Research and Development at the Federal Railroad Administration, says the industry has deployed more wayside advanced technology systems (WATS) to look for defects as trains pass, something he says the industry is becoming better at. In one example, he says a network of hot bearing detectors has allowed trains to prevent burned off wheel bearings. A number of Class I railroads, including BNSF and UP, are now testing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to inspect tracks. Operators can fly them up to 150 miles away and use high powered cameras and imaging software to better detect anomalies more quickly.
“Our contractors that do this kind of research work to develop systems that eventually, once prototypes and commercialized, go into service,” says Tuna.
Data to Optimize
New technologies are also enabling the industry to improve efficiencies. Union Pacific has started using new GE Evolution Series Tier 4 Locomotives, 432,000-pound machines that have 4,400 horsepower and can reach a maximum speed of 70 miles per hour. The machines reduce emissions by 70 percent compared to Tier 3 locomotives and produce 90 percent less particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen than locomotives did 15 years ago. Improving efficiency continues to make trains the most efficient mode of long-distance on-ground transport. On average, BNSF says it can move one ton of freight almost 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel. The U.S. EPA notes that while rail carries more than 40 percent of U.S. freight by volume, it only accounts for 2.3 percent of all transpiration related greenhouse gas emissions.
Hubert Gassner, chief financial officer with OmniTRAX in Denver, Colo., says new technologies are also being used to solve “business issues and problems.” He says the rail industry is implementing and using more data-driven technologies that can optimize operations and improve rail shipping by enhancing efficiencies. “We can see immediately if a fuel rate is off the charts or if [a train] is going too fast or not and we can [engineers] manage performance,” says Gassner.
While using trains can save money for business shippers, they’re often unfamiliar networks and not often easy to use. OmniTRAX offers to make rail shipping easier with Class I railroads that offer personal “door to door” service for small and large companies. Gassner says OmniTRAX runs everything in the cloud, providing shippers real-time insight into schedules and where their cargo is at any point in time. “We wanted to get rid of paper and have what we call dynamic operational dashboards that make all the information available to the right people at the right time,” says Gassner. “Everyone from the shipper to the guy in the field can see how we’re operating and get constant feedback.”
Gassner says blockchain is another piece of technology that offers great potential in rail shipping. As a distributed database that serves as the infrastructure for bitcoin, blockchain is now being used in the financial and retail industries to improve security, bring more transparency to information, boost reliability, and reduce friction in rail shipping. As a direct form of communication, blockchain can offer real-time digital ledgers of shipping data for use by third parties, port officials, and anyone in the supply chain. Gassner says it could eliminate the problems often encountered with “closed off” data sources. “I think blockchain, if people start putting real effort into it, like the financial industry does, can make a big difference in the rail shipping industry.”
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