Bridging the Telematics Technology Gap: A Conversation With 2 RailPulse Members

By RSI Staff

As technology continues to evolve at the speed of light and make access to data increasingly available, how does rail keep pace, especially when it comes to monitoring logistics? Today’s solutions are at times considered antiquated and disparate across the industry. RailPulse seeks to answer this question and modernize rail shipping for today’s world and beyond.

Formed as a coalition of 10 major railcar owners and users, the group is creating an open-architecture, industry-wide railcar telematics platform powered by data from GPS and railcar-mounted sensors. This solution will help the industry address shipment and railcar visibility, offer enhanced safety, improve the shipper experience, lower operational costs and more.

To better understand the progress RailPulse has made and what opportunities lie ahead, we spoke with two individuals from RailPulse member organizations: Terry McDermott,  director of supply chain – North American rail at Bunge, and Paul Titterton, executive vice president and president, rail North America, at GATX.

Can you share why your organization decided to get involved with RailPulse? How do you interact with the organization?

Terry McDermott: The North American rail industry is evolving, and we believe that the use of technologies, such as GPS and other telematics solutions, will soon be a standard across the industry. However, it will require a collaborative approach focused on scale and standardization in order for the entire network and all of its stakeholders to truly benefit from these solutions. By joining RailPulse, we are taking a proactive step toward driving positive change and digital transformation within the rail shipping industry. As these solutions are being refined, we want to ensure that the shipper perspective is well represented throughout their development, aiming at enhancing service levels, visibility, safety and productivity within North American rail-based supply chains.

Paul Titterton: GATX chose to be a founding partner in RailPulse because we saw the promise in telematics, but we also saw the risk of a balkanized approach to it. With RailPulse, we saw the opportunity to bring together all major stakeholders in the industry (railroads, car owners, and shippers) to unite around an industrywide solution. Today we are highly active in the organization — Rob Zmudka, our senior vice president/chief commercial officer, sits on the RailPulse board, and Jason Ormond, who runs our emerging technology function, dedicates a huge portion of his team’s time to RailPulse.

What are some of the most impactful ways you see RailPulse technology improving rail in your area of operations? Can you share an example?

Terry McDermott: Improved real-time visibility will allow us to plan and execute better, which in turn allows us to serve our markets and customers more effectively. We have already seen benefits versus CLM technology for cars moving en route to or from a destination. We also now have detailed visibility within terminals that indicate the load versus empty status of our cars, without having to depend on a manual entry at the plant or terminal.

Paul Titterton: The most basic benefit, and the one being realized immediately every time we equip a car, is real-time visibility. The old AEI (RFID) system was ahead of its time when implemented, but today it’s been leapfrogged by GPS-based tracking. Every RailPulse-enabled car will allow shippers to know with certainty not just the last AEI scanner their car passed, but exactly where the car is, and when it was placed with a consignee. This eliminates uncertainty and reduces the possibility for disputes among stakeholders. To be sure, real-time visibility is just the tip of the iceberg — many other benefits will accrue to all stakeholders as RailPulse functionality is built out.

What challenges or areas of improvement need to be addressed?

Terry McDermott: So far, our experience has been good. We continue to test and apply in our business as technology continues to evolve and improve. The only real challenge we’ve been faced with is the timing associated with equipping our railcars. We’d like to equip as many as we can, as fast as possible, but the safest, most convenient and cost-effective way is to either do this as new cars are onboarded to our fleet, or as we cycle our cars through a diverse shop network. We will get there, but the reality is that we would like to equip our cars at a faster rate than what we are currently.

Paul Titterton: It really comes down to development and deployment. On the development side, RailPulse is working with vendors to vet a wide array of sensors to see how they perform in the railroad operating environment. You can’t just say “I’m putting an accelerometer on my car” and expect to get accurate readings. RailPulse’s team is working to certify sensors for the railroad environment to ensure consistent and reliable data. As this development process unfolds, a broader array of sensors will become available within the RailPulse ecosystem.

On the deployment side, it just comes down to the time and cost to equip the fleet. Each RailPulse owner is committed to making a substantial financial investment to equip its fleet. RailPulse has also benefitted from a CRISI grant to support both development and deployment. The faster we can ensure all cars are RailPulse-equipped, the more these benefits will accrue to the industry.

How has collaborating with other stakeholders through RailPulse enhanced your work and the overall efficiency of the rail industry?

Terry McDermott: Through real time GPS technology, stakeholders are able to plan better, which reflects in better execution, enhanced efficiencies and productivity. Increased railroad capacity will allow shippers to better and more consistently serve their customers. In Bunge’s case, we will be better positioned to efficiently move our products and those of our customers on both ends of the value chain, from the farmer all the way to the end customer.

Paul Titterton: Without the diverse team we are collaborating with, there is no way we could have advanced this complex project as fast as we have. I love that we have Class I railroads, shortlines, shippers, independent lessors, car builders, and other stakeholders all partnering to advance RailPulse. It’s a great example of how cooperation results in broad benefits not only to the industry, but to the public. When we make it easier to ship by rail, the public benefits through greater efficiency and lower environmental impact versus trucks.

How do you see the continued evolution of RailPulse technology influence your sector of the rail industry?

Terry McDermott: Increased visibility leads to better planning, better planning leads to improved execution, and improved execution leads to optimized efficiency. All of this leads to increased capacity in the overall network. The entire agricultural industry will benefit from increased rail capacity that will allow us to better serve our customers and compete on a global basis.

Paul Titterton: The biggest influence is modal share. The rail industry is in a dogfight with the heavily subsidized trucking industry to hold on to, and hopefully grow, our share of freight. By making it easier and more transparent to ship by rail, we can win customers who have historically chosen to ship by truck.

In your experience, what has been the most significant impact of RailPulse on the industry so far?

Terry McDermott: The level of collaboration and the collective efforts of the entire RailPulse team has been the most significant impact so far. The shared vision is evident.

Paul Titterton: I’m going to answer that question by saying that the biggest impact is yet to come. So far, we are in the early innings of telematics on railcars. I am incredibly proud of the progress RailPulse has made, but the impact we are going to have will be when there is a critical mass of telematics-enabled railcars such that shippers are seeing broad benefits and choosing carload freight versus trucking. I am confident we will get there if we continue down the path we are on.

About the Railway Supply Institute (RSI)
The Railway Supply Institute (RSI) is dedicated to advancing safety, innovation, technology, and sustainability within the freight and passenger railway supplier industry, both in North America and global markets. As the voice of the industry, RSI strategically engages in critical and urgent industry matters by leveraging the technical expertise of our members to advocate in the legislative and regulatory arenas, foster education, host impactful events, and facilitate networking opportunities. For more information visit, follow RSI on Twitter and LinkedIn

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