The Future of Freight: Technological Advancements in the Rail Industry

Transportation 9 min read
Rail Freight Station

There are 1.1m kilometers of railroads worldwide, with 32% of these in the USA. This presents a valuable network for transportation and logistics and both Russia and the USA top tables that show huge volumes of goods transported in this way each year. Some of the world’s railway systems have been traveling the same routes for centuries, and while new railroads are laid, technological advancements often need to keep this in mind. The latest developments in rail technology are focused on several key areas, including safety, efficiency, and environmental impact. Let’s look more closely at the technologies enhancing the rail networks and the benefits these will bring to freight and logistics.

Automation and Achieving Safety Milestones on the Railroads

There has been a range of different measures trialled nationally and on individual railroad lines to improve safety and minimize road failures. Positive Train Control (PTC) involves implementing multiple technologies that help enhance locomotive safety and management. The system is already running on all Class 1 railroads in the USA. PTC systems are designed to determine the exact location, direction, and speed of trains. This information can then be used to warn operators of changes and potential risks, allowing them to act appropriately. PTC has to be installed on all tracks that carry passengers, and also some hazardous materials. The key elements of the system are as follows:

· The locomotive system – this is onboard the trains and monitors their position and speed. PTC can activate the train’s brakes when necessary to enforce speed restrictions or prevent unauthorized movement.

· The trackside system – this monitors the track signals, switches, and track of each railroad. It communicates with the locomotive system to authorize or stop train movement.

· The server – this essential back-office element stores all data related to the rail network and trains. This allows the trackside and locomotive systems to operate appropriately depending on speed restrictions, authorizations, and other important factors.

PTC-enabled trains exist to minimize the risk of accidents, but they are focused on four specific types of accident prevention. PTC helps to reduce human error and prevents these types of accidents:

1. Derailments caused by speed

2. Accidents due to incorrect track routing

3. Train-to-train collisions

4. Unauthorized train movements on tracks closed for maintenance

There are, of course, additional causes of rail accidents that cannot be guarded against using this system, but it goes a long way to pushing forward with safety measures across the country’s rail networks. Over $25bn a year investment goes into maintaining and modernizing the country’s rail systems, which involves automated safety measures like PTC. For example, PTC knows the precise location of all trains operating on the network and the distance necessary between each train. This allows operators to plan for more trains in a safe way, meeting business demands whilst keeping safety as a priority.

Automation is becoming more important to run efficient railroads safely. Automated technologies can quickly carry out work that may be a long process when done manually, and the results may also be more accurate. For example, an algorithm recently analyzed the track geometry of over 1500 curves of track in a matter of hours. This task would take a team several months. The chance to run operations more efficiently and make better use of rail resources and assets is realized with the help of the right automated technology and software.

Crucially, automation is something rail operators want. A poll conducted by operational technology firm Navis found 43% of respondents plan to invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning over the next three years. In addition, 62% also stated they believe that railways need to automate trains and yards to stay competitive with alternative transportation methods. Automating elements of the rail network is essential to remain a reliable option for businesses transporting goods.

Robotics and Simulation in the Railyard

As well as on the tracks, it is possible to further enhance the efficiency of the rail network through robotics, both on the railroads and in railyards. Reducing reliance on humans to maintain tracks, yards, bridges, and tunnels can lead to quicker operations and maintenance. Advanced instructional technologies and machine learning can effectively combine to set robotic equipment to work on maintenance tasks quickly and efficiently. Of course, human monitoring and management is always a requirement, but the labor can be shouldered by machinery designed for this purpose. This also has further safety benefits, avoiding the risk of human casualties working in high-risk environments such as on live railroads.

Generating and Utilizing Data Effectively

Going back to PTC, the back-office servers are now goldmines of valuable and usable data. Railroads harness the potential of big data every time movement and speeds are logged. Smart sensors across the network and improved track inspection technology mean we have more data about our railroads than ever before. The vital next step is utilizing it effectively.

Developments in software mean the data already held can be used more effectively than before. The software identifies data trends and applies these to enhance future operations and safety measures. Researchers at the Transport Technology Center focus their efforts on analyzing and getting as much valuable information as possible from the data trends. The wealth of data gives analysts the ability to evaluate multiple factors at once and develop industry-wide standards in the future. As a result, these standards are more robust and reliable, with numerous sources for their introduction. This leads to a more reliable infrastructure for freight and railroads, which are efficient with constantly evolving standards designed to meet real-time trends.

Track inspection technology is also developing to create a more seamless process. US track inspection technology operates independently of trains. Still, there are hopes that improved software will mean inspection technology can be in-built into trains, allowing for continuous inspection and even more data to work with.

Improving Fuel Efficiency

Rail Fuel Efficiency

Technological advancements can also be beneficial to achieving environment-focused goals for freight. Trains are already seen as a fuel-efficient alternative to other transport modes. Trucks generate significantly higher amounts of CO2 over the same distance, and air freight is known for its high energy consumption levels. However, more can still be done to improve the efficiency of the rail network. Diesel-electric trains are set to become a thing of the past as operators look to find ways to be more ecological. Cutting emissions is the most effective way of minimizing rail’s impact on the environment, and this means operators must find alternative fuel sources. Operators are trialling different fuel sources to find the best solution for this mode of transport. As well as electricity, they are considering hydrogen fuel cells and liquid natural gas.

Hydrogen trains are the focus of French rolling stock manufacturer Alstom. Hydrogen fuel cells power the Alstom Coradia iLint EMU-challenger. The hydrogen cell powers an electric motor, and any additional energy is stored in a lithium-ion battery. Alstom claims its train is the world’s first emission free train unit, which is a huge achievement, but considerable costs are involved.

Canadian rail firm Bombardier is also looking to use lithium-ion batteries to propel its trains. With €4 million funding from the German Transport Ministry, Bombardier is developing the Talent 3 EMU project, focusing on improving the eco-friendliness of its trains.

Decarbonization is a global concern and not something the rail industry can ignore. Railways remain the most sustainable form of transportation there is, but there is a long way to go before achieving net-zero emissions.

Alternative options for improving train’s fuel efficiency include looking into hybrid models. While hybrid road vehicles are already being phased out for full-electric alternatives, a hybrid freight train could be an effective way of balancing the need for efficiency and environmental responsibility. Hybrid locomotives will look similar to the Alstom model, with the ability to capture regenerative braking energy, locomotive electrification, and the use of hybrid fuel cells.

Maximizing the Value and Efficiency of Rail Assets

Engineers design locomotives to last up to 30 years, with railcars lasting as many as 50. As they age, maintenance requirements increase significantly. When compared to a commercial truck, with an average lifespan of just 3-4 years, locomotives are expected to function effectively for significantly longer. Commercial trucks benefit from less overall maintenance and the opportunity to realize technological innovation and advancements quickly.

While we need locomotives to last significantly longer than 3-4 years, it could be possible to design them for a shorter 10–15-year lifespan to take advantage of technological breakthroughs in this time. It can also have a positive impact on maintenance and operational costs. The average consumer replaces their cell phone every couple of years and cars every 5 or 6, intending to benefit from the latest technology. For the rail network to realize the potential of the newest technology, we need to be able to design locomotives more frequently or with the ability to upgrade and enhance incorporated into their design.

Companies reliant on freight via the railroads have experienced a significant change in the last two years. Supply chains have altered, smaller shipments are more common due to consumers constantly purchasing in often smaller numbers, and the frequency of deliveries is markedly increased. When looking at the rail network, many organizations are finding trains are too big, and time is wasted as they wait to fill up, leaving companies with an inefficient service for their customers. Smaller, swifter, and more frequent trains are a more proactive and responsive solution to the current supply chain needs. Large trains are not the most efficient option for the current market.

Matching Regulations and Networks to Rail Requirements

Freight Train Automation

Rail freight has always been limited by its reach. Locomotives can only travel between specific destinations, and most businesses rely upon separate last-mile distribution via trucks and other road vehicles. While this can seem to limit freight operators, the most effective companies invest in both. For example, many logistics brands use HGVs, electric trucks and even bicycle couriers for the last mile of their delivery operations. This combination is effective and further improves deliveries for the end customers.

To fully realize the benefits of technology on our railroads, there needs to be significant modernization. The government has already rolled out PTC across many lines, but things need to go much further for the full benefit of modernization to be recognized. Regulators and the government need to play a key role in this change. Technological development will improve railroads, but it does come at a cost. Trialling new technologies requires permissions, and beyond this, regulation to ensure the safety of any measures put in place. A new regulatory environment with today’s technology incorporated is essential for the railroads to maximize their potential and be as reliable and agile as alternative transportation sources. The rail networks are hugely important considering the volume of goods they transport, but modernizing is key to ensuring they retain their position as the world’s most important transportation network.

Harnessing the Best Technology for Freight Trains of the Future

We are well on the way to intelligent freight trains and smart systems. Utilizing the vast volumes of high-quality data generated by PTC, operators can improve their services and speeds according to requirements and trends. Automation stands out as a key driver in streamlining the modern railroads, and it will be integral in ensuring the future efficiency of the trains. Some elements of automation are already in place, but more can be done and will be necessary to keep up with the changing nature of the supply chain and customer demands.

Many individual companies have taken innovative steps to change our railroads, modernize trains and create a 21st-century solution to efficient freight transportation. This, coupled with Congress’ commitment to PTC and rolling out the scheme across further types of railroads, may be the final step in creating the modern railroad system we need to meet demand.