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American Railroads on Track to Set Mobile Technology Standards for Global Industry

When thinking about modern-day technology innovators, you probably conjure up images of semiconductor manufacturers, smart device creators, and the well-known online giants – not the rail industry. That is because you may not be aware of the smart logistics systems and award-winning technology applications that railroads across the Americas have been implementing for several years now to keep their conductors safely connected, and critical scheduling and cargo data visible, regardless of the distance traveled or the amount of shock and vibration endured. And you may not hear a lot about the mobile technologies being implemented across terminals and intermodals to facilitate real-time asset monitoring, track yard resources, and optimize routes (to maximize capacity on lines). But, behind the scenes, an impressive level of innovation is occurring to the benefit of railroads, their customers, and consumers. Especially across the Americas.

“Over the past decade, the freight rail industry has experienced a technological revolution that has transformed the way we transport goods,” as Politico recently emphasized. 

Mexico’s largest rail operator is proof.

Ferrovalle Railroad Video

 Ferrovalle’s IT Teamwork has been pushing the technology envelope and driving incremental innovation efforts ever since the Ferrocarril y Terminal del Valle de México and Ferrovalle Intermodal facilities were privatized in 1998. Software applications developed in house – such as the web-based container tracking Logistic Intermodal System first implemented in 2005 – are upgraded every year per Ferrovalle’s CIO Ruben Castillo Santistebe. But in 2010, Ferrovalle recognized an increased need to share information “from the black box to the glass box” in real time to provide total transparency to clients.

With pen and paper processes still dominating most of their data systems, Ferrovalle sought a truly mobile computing solution that was safe to use in the terminal, the intermodal facility, and even on its locomotives on all routes. Ferrovalle aimed to give workers and customers full access to rail information, a “zero distance” solution that would allow them to perform their duties at the scene, while en route to the next call, or at the station. After developing their multi-award-winning Smart Logistics system software in house and finding the right rugged tablet platform to deliver the application to workers in the field, Ferrovalle immediately improved its logistics precision across its locomotives, terminal, and intermodal facilities. The tablets consistently generate and distribute the information critical to container tracking, damage inspection, delivery and shipping, and work order completion.

The rugged tablets have served as powerful and effective ‘zero distance’ tools in the transfer of real-time data from the field to each business unit, and even to customers seeking real-time tracking of their goods,” explains Ferrovalle CIO Rubén Castillo Santistebe.

(This case study provides details about the solution’s broader impact across business functions.)

Numerous Class I railroads in North America are experiencing similar benefits from their innovative mobile technology applications. One long-time customer first deployed Xplore Windows® and Android™ rugged tablets in 2013 and recognized immediate efficiency gains in rail yard operations. With consistently rising cargo transportation demands and an expanding workforce, mobility requirements at this customer have continued to increase since the initial implementation. That is why they have increased their implementation of rugged tablets equipped with top handles to facilitate fast check-in and inspection of inventory-filled trailers as they are transferred from the yard to the rail cars. The flexibility and performance of these rugged tablet platforms give the railroad the speed, data and tracking capabilities necessary to consistently optimize asset performance and improve worker productivity as supply chain economics rise.

U.S. Sugar also implemented mobile technologies years ago. After putting rugged tablets in the hands of various workers, this sugar producer quickly improved control over a large area of its rail operations, cut its data input cost to zero, and reduced errors and lost data. In turn, they were able to get the maximum, premium yield from their cane fields.”

These results are leading railroads in other global regions to take note.

Railroad mobile computing

“The intensity and concentration of rail, freight and intermodal activities [throughout the UK] puts significant pressure on rail operators to improve logistics precision. So too does the daily obligation of maintaining track, rolling stock, and managing people as customer demands fluctuate,” reports Rail Pro Magazine. In other words, rail operators around the world are equally challenged by increasing business demands and could benefit from the fundamental, and widespread, financial gains offered by moving to a paperless operation. However, as evidenced in this article, UK rail operators are just now ready to follow the lead of the American rail industry’s early adopters.

“Fortunately, rail operators like Mexico’s Ferrovalle have already proven the business application for rugged mobile computers and demonstrated the efficiency gains that can be made on the locomotive and in the intermodal,” as Rail Pro Magazine confirms.

Just How Much the Rail Industry is Investing in Technology – and Saving as a Result

According to a whitepaper from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), “the rail industry has spent $100 billion on infrastructure, equipment and technology in just the last four years.” And though the investments span the technology spectrum – machine learning, big data, predictive analytics, and advanced sensors, just to name a few – it is mobile technology that is garnering the attention of rail industry leaders right now. Without the right mobile computing system in place, it is impossible to effectively capture, analyze and distribute the data that these advanced technologies – and rail industry workers – depend on to do their jobs.

As Capgemini principal Bob Hood recently told Logistics Management: “Increased transportation costs, a driver shortage, and changing regulations—all of these issues are driving the increased adoption of mobility.”

However, it is not enough to put a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device in workers’ hands. Rail operators have to mobilize highly complex and integrated logistical tasks in a way that is simple and straightforward.

They need high-quality insights to more effectively coordinate and adjust schedules, optimize asset performance, and improve worker productivity to target levels. They also need to ensure that the mobility solution can be utilized for common “clipboard” processes without disrupting the flow of information or slowing workflows related to:

  • Audit and Regulatory Compliance
  • Cargo, Fleet and Inventory Management
  • Computer Aided Dispatch, Scheduling and Work Orders
  • Inspections, Maintenance and Repair
  • GIS/Mapping, Route Optimization and Navigation
  • RFID Locomotive and Yard Resource Tracking/Signaling
  • Safety and Environmental Risk Management

Railroad mounted rugged tablet

Therefore, they need high-quality mobile devices equipped with powerful processors, expansive storage and memory, and hot-swappable batteries that provide an experience equivalent to a traditional desktop or laptop computer. And those are just a few of the considerations:

  • Size and Usability: Where will the mobile computer be used the most, in hand, on an intermodal crane lift or in the locomotive? Will workers need a keyboard for data input? What about Glove touch access, cameras or barcode scanners? Will they need full computing capabilities in the field? Will the device work anywhere, in any condition, around the clock?
  • Power and Performance : Will the device’s battery last a full shift, or trip? How much speed do I need to send signaling data or retrieve cargo packing orders fast enough? How much memory and storage capacity is needed for my business applications and/or GIS?
  • Connectivity and Communications : What I/O is needed to connect to specialty peripherals? Is a mobile gateway/router is needed? Do I need Wi-Fi, 4G, satellite GPS or RFID connections?
  • Mounting vs. Mobility: Are any specials screws, springs or pins needed to keep the mounted solution securely in place? What is the mounted solution size? Other ergonomic factors? Do I need to add a Kensington Lock?
  • Data Security : How will I secure my sensitive “internal cargo” (i.e. data)? Multi-authentication, encryption, TPM, biometrics? Can I manage the device remotely via EMM/MDM solutions?
  • Viewability: Can workers see the device in the locomotive cab, or outside in the yard? Do they need to? Is the screen too bright/dark? Text too small? Any glare?
  • Future-Proof Plans (and Immediate Interoperability): What OS do I run now? What do I plan to run in the future? Is the device compatible with my existing software and back-office systems? Will it continue to be compatible in the future? What is the TCO vs. ROI?

Plus, regardless of the business application, the mobile devices are likely going to be used 24/7 in the yards and on locomotives. They must be able to operate in extreme conditions – heat, cold, rain, and sun – and tolerate constant vibration, exposure to contaminants, and drops. At the same time, rail transport remains one of the highest-volume cargo channels, especially for hazardous materials. Railroads need a reliable way to keep routes both safe and on-schedule through shared-lines near cities and in some of the most rural and most remote territories worldwide. Therefore, railroads must also consider device and worker safety: Will the mobile device be in close proximity to hazardous gasses, flammable materials, or fine dust? Is a Blank-It/black-out app necessary? Will the device stay online at all times, regardless of the environmental conditions?

The reality is that the failure rates of consumer-grade devices and lack of HazLoc certifications make popular off-the-shelf tablet, handheld and laptop computers too risky for rail applications – even those that are marketed as “rugged” only because of their IP68 waterproof and dustproof rating (which is easy when there are no IO ports). They also lack the computing power, specialized I/O, enterprise security features, and custom-configurability that the rail industry’s unique mobile technology use cases mandate, among a host of other capabilities highlighted above.

On the other hand, rugged mobile devices “resist failure from being dropped, soaked, and abused. Built-in durability and performance capabilities are just a few reasons why the total cost of ownership (TCO) for a rugged mobile computer over a minimum three to five-year period is far lower than a ‘consumer grade’ tablet or smartphone in a protective case that one might buy from a tech or mobile retailer,” as Rail Pro Magazine reports.

mobile computing with rugged tablets for transportation

If you recall, I pointed out in a recent blog that if the cost of downtime is more than the purchase price of the tablet, then it is essential to select a rugged instead of a non-rugged device. I noted that in a restaurant, a failed tablet would cost the restaurant $250 or less, so it could make sense to opt for a consumer tablet with a low sticker price. However, a field service technician with a broken tablet can cost the employer lost labor expenses, the IT resources required to re-provision a new tablet, and the cost of unserved customers. That cost quickly rises into the thousands of dollars, which is a lot more than a tablet sticker price.

Well, in the case of a railroad, this TCO analysis gets a lot more dramatic. If a tablet fails (or can’t run the full software suite needed, can’t interface with a critical backend server, etc.), and a train is delayed, then a HUGE amount of cargo is delayed, and there may be a dramatic ripple effect delaying other trains, other customer pickups and deliveries. There is a LOT of cargo moved by a freight train, so any downtime because of a mobile device is very expensive to a railroad – which is why they choose mobile devices most likely to survive. Those aren’t the only factors impacting TCO and ROI, though.

Railroads need enterprise-grade mobile computers that are backwards-compatible and future-ready, able to interface with other smart devices, geolocation applications, and the Internet of Things (IoT). In Ferrovalle’s case, these capabilities were essential to their success. At the same time, rugged tablet, 2-in-1, and handheld computer platforms boast an unmatched level of flexibility that is necessary to developing a paperless system. After all, the hardware is just one component of the total mobility – and IT – solution. As Ferrovalle and countless other transportation sector leaders will attest, the software selection or development will often preceed any hardware purchase.) In fact, it was the versatility, reliability and interoperability of rugged tablets that enabled Ferrovalle to save more than 5 million pesos within the first year of implementing their mobility-based Smart Logistics Systems. The combined solution also helped the rail operator to increase revenues in its receiving, storage, and merchandise warehousing operations, achieving nearly a 40 percent increase in comprehensive income during those 12 months.

Additional cost savings were achieved as productivity increased and crews could access up-to-the-minute data from a multitude of systems, whether they were in the yard, inside train cabins, or operating a crane. Employees could immediately access and complete checklists and provide container status updates, including damage reports.

“Ferrovalle’s employees are much more focused now that they have the rugged tablets to support their daily tasks,” Santistebe added when talking about the company’s success. “They have also become more driven on the job. They feel that they are part of something important as the result of our combined innovation and implementation of impactful mobile technology solutions.”

To learn more about how innovative the rail industry has become, and the powerful role that mobile technology plays in the success of other technology implementations, visit our Railroad Transportation Solutions site or contact our rail industry mobility experts.

Railroad Transportation Solutions

Blog Author: Bob Ashenbrenner
President of Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC.