Machine to machine (M2M) technology isn’t new to the rail industry, but it has now broadened into the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data analytics. Railroads and their customers are benefitting today, and there is still room for growth and the realization of new benefits.

Real-time tracking
Real-time satellite image with moving assets as icons

Railroads are benefitting because, with the rise of IoT, we’ve actually seen a decrease in safety incidents. The train accident rate in 2014 was the lowest ever, down 79 percent from 1980, and 43 percent from 2000. With the implementation of things like positive train control (PTC) and closer monitoring of driver fatigue, we hope to see this trend continue.

Another advantage IoT provides for railroads is related to the heightened visibility IoT provides: Railroads no long bear sole responsibility for lost, delayed or damaged shipments. A railroad can now share accountability with shippers and equipment manufacturers, given the range of tracking and reporting systems that not only can trace a problem, but also enable prevention.

IoT also is being used to drastically bring down the costs of operations with, for example, new technology such as mesh networks for tracking and monitoring railcars. By using less hardware and data to elicit valuable information — information such as rapid acceleration, impact detection, and hatch-openings on each individual car — railroads can secure and optimize their operations at steeply reduced costs. Being one of the primary modes of transportation within the country, this helps railroads optimize their efficiencies and increase their output at a better profit margin.

For railroad customers, optimized efficiencies bring down the cost of goods transferred. In the end everyone is happy.

How M2M has evolved

The natural progression of M2M communications was to create an even smarter machine-to-machine relationship, with information coming back again, generating a conditional environment. So instead of a machine simply reporting to another machine, they each can understand adjustable criteria and use it to modify their interaction. Lat-Lon, a BSM Technologies Company, is undergoing this transformation with its systems so that each machine is adaptive to each other’s activities, creating a symmetrical relationship. For example, once a shipment leaves the railyard on a truck, both the railyard system and the truck report more frequently.

The heightened visibility mentioned earlier is afforded by global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices. Since 1999, Lat-Lon has been accumulating a broad range of success stories on how this type of M2M communication delivers safety, efficiency and fiscal results to Class 1s, short lines and shippers. In 2014, Lat-Lon was acquired by global asset tracking leader, BSM Technologies. The combined product array completes offerings for all tracking and monitoring needs in the rail industry.

As technology has evolved, so have the BSM Technologies products, providing a host of sensors that offer relevance to events with GPS data. Applications include the detecting of damaging impacts, identifying “Man Down” equipment, flat wheel sensors, truck hunting input and more.

Specific IoT applications

One major chemical shipper used Lat-Lon GPS with Impacts Data to determine algorithm issues specific to a particular track in an automated yard. This customer was able to determine that a decimal point had been misplaced in an automated sorting yard application, after discovering consistent large impacts on one track.

A short-line railroad is saving more than $1,750 per week in idling fuel per locomotive during winter months with the Lat-Lon Automatic Engine Start Stop application. Lat-Lon AESS lets updates to engine start/stop parameters be made over-the-air, so this railroad can make adjustments quickly and easily when business needs dictate.

A Class 1 railroad wanted to reduce their claims for spoiled produce. Through 24/7 temperature monitoring, this customer was able to prove that their refer cars had been functioning correctly; one particular destination was incorrectly claiming spoilage.

Most recently, an existing Lat-Lon customer wanted to concisely improve visibility and efficiency without eroding safety. They conceptualized a two-screen system to display all moving and stationary assets within their yard, but on a budget. The customer reached out to Lat-Lon and the Connected Rail Yard was born. The connecting of all rail assets in a yard — from crew to moving equipment to fixed assets — is the epitome of IoT.

For this connected railyard, Lat-Lon harnessed Mesh technology to create a scalable and reliable network with high-frequency transmission capabilities. Sensors installed on switches and derails within the customer’s yard pass data along like a bucket brigade, creating a network with multiple paths to each access point. The Solar-Powered Access Point (AP) unit contains a modem that uploads the data to secure servers and train dispatcher screens. That means this customer has fewer modems deployed throughout their yard, while gathering all required data.

In this railyard, moving assets were equipped with a self-contained Solar-Powered Tracking Unit or Locomotive Monitoring Unit. The Connected Rail Yard data is collected on secure servers, and data analytics creates displays on two large, high-definition monitors in the dispatch office. One monitor shows a real-time satellite image with all moving assets as icons. The second monitor shows a custom schematic Rail Yard Control screen (Tracks) with all stationary sensor icons. Each icon is a relay from MeshRF sensors or standalone units deployed within the yard. The dispatch office screen indicates when a switch in the normal, diverting position, or unknown status.

With Lat-Lon and BSM together, the customer can monitor all assets within the yard. The Connected Rail Yard application is an efficient, at-a-glance tool for this customer to resolve bottlenecks, improve throughput and maximize resources.

Robyn Kline is Director of Marketing for Lat-Lon LLC, a BSM Technologies Company. With a host of sensors and specialty monitoring for rail and intermodal shipments, Lat-Lon provides more than GPS. Since 1999, Lat-Lon has established itself as an innovator. It gained further momentum in 2014 when acquired by BSM Technologies, a global asset tracking leader. The Lat-Lon self-contained Solar Tracking Unit dominates product lines, and is complimented by powered units for locomotives, a variety of rail-specific collaborated sensors, and thorough hy-rail & rubber tire solutions from BSM. Find out more by viewing the Connected Rail Yard video or the Lat-Lon/Progressive Railroading Fast Cast on Impact in Rail.