Skip to main content

Railcar Tracking… Critically Important When Service Is Challenging!

When I started in the railroad world several decades ago, big data for railcar maintenance was collected by railroads through readers that generated a report of the railcar movement (read my bio here). These were called “wheel reports” definitionally to those of us who used them to distribute railcars. These wheel reports use to capture most of the basic data of the train movement information and basic Universal Machine Language Equipment Register (UMLER) for the railcar. The basic information you would receive was where the railcar was currently located – which really meant where it was at when the railcar passed by the reader. This also meant that unless the railcar was in a yard it may or may not already be somewhere else by the time the data passed from the reader to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) or direct to the customer, if the customer had a direct account with the railroad. When the data got to the AAR the AAR would then “scrub” the data for inaccuracies’ and send it to the railroads and to customers that were in the route and had their name on the waybill.

When info was shuffled between parties, it lost some accuracy.

During the time of my introduction to wheel reports I was working as a manager in the railcar distribution team. Our team specifically distributed mill gondolas, scrap gondolas, steel gondolas, open top hoppers, aluminum (non- coal) hoppers, covered hoppers and many other types of bulk railcar types. The wheel reports were our eyes in the field. The wheel reports seemed pretty accurate and facilitated a lot of decisions on what railroad supplied railcars went to which customer being applied against what railcar orders were entered into the system by the customer. It seemed though that when the data was passed to the AAR and the AAR consolidated that data often referred to as Car Location Messages (“CLM”) with other railroads data then reshuffled it and sent it out via customer inquiry, it lost some of its accuracy. So much so that when railcars were “close” to their loading or unloading point, the good old phone network was significantly more reliable. Today this still occurs across many commodity segments in the industry.

Evolution created a market opportunity for the private data developer to entire into the railcar data consolidation arena.

A whole host of companies were born from the lack of clean data provided through this AAR system. The data the AAR shared was basically a running report of where your railcar was at and it was up to you to stitch together the series of events to determine anything manageable. These series of events were manipulated by private developers into management reports showing delays, time in yards, time running from point to point and all intermediate points between origin and destination, delay locations and sometimes the reason for the delay for instance mechanical, initial or terminal delay, cycle time reports showing cyclicality and seasonality of shipments for better planning.  Although data quality has been programmed to be better, there are still enough discrepancies in the quality of the data it requires a proactive management approach.

Data Still Requires Analyzing and Scrubbing.

If you’re in the railcar movement software business trying to generate accurate reports to supply to your customers’, I am just about 99% certain that there are inaccuracies in the original data you receive and that data requires analysis and scrubbing. Now it may be that these inaccuracies are part of an overall consistent move that the discrepancy is averaged out in the entire scheme of things being not recognized as an outlier to the movement. In which case if you have enough movements on specific railroad corridors the accuracy will improve as you ship more railcars.

Technology Has Improved Visibility!

As in all things, rail technology has improved visibility of railcar locations. Advances to the wheel reports have been significant since the time I was making distribution decisions based on wheel reports and there are several software and data collect entities doing a great job of collecting, scrubbing and supplying customers with as accurate as possible data. Today we see some amazing new technology including global positioning satellites (GPS) being used for railcar location and rail fleet cycle time reports. These GPS reports also may include commodity information such as reports of internal railcar temperature on perishable commodities to better track their progress and sustainability to keep perishable products in good condition, or certain railcar handling requirements such as do not hump railcars that carry banded material such as poles, high, wide movements, etc.  You can do a search on railroad GPS railcar systems and sort through the list if you’re interested or contact our operations team and we’ll give you some recommendations.

Focus on Railcars & Railcar Performance: That’s What a Fleet Manager Needs!

Up to this point the focus has been on railcars and railcar performance. That’s what a fleet manager needs to manage his/her equipment. One group of industry veterans have recently introduced a new look at railcar and train visibility. Their approach is to use fixed cameras to document railcar movements coupled with a computer operating system that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to establish railcar and train movements.  Their approach crosses the gap between railcar logistics and commodity trading where having information on what your competition is doing is very valuable. We see this as an amazing step, dare we say “leap, forward! Further, given the pressure the Surface Transportation Board and focus on safety and accurate reporting that the Federal Railway Administration and Transport Canada are putting on the railroads, this may be a way to share the same real time information for making more informed operating decisions.

Good Data Is Critically Important When Railroad Service Is Challenging. 

Clean, accurate and timely data are important to rail shipment success. They are even more important during times when railroad service is challenging. Tealinc is not a software service provider; however, to best assist our long-term lease customers, Tealinc offers rail shipment management services for railcars that are owned by Tealinc and leased to our valuable customers. Yes, we too electronically and even manually scrub data to establish the most accurate reflection of rail shipments as possible. That conversion of data to information is our strong point and we welcome your call.

Let’s Create Value Together.

Tealinc is a railcar lessor, railcar management and consulting firm.  Contact us for an evaluation of your rail transportation situation.  We’re always engaged and care about generating positive results be it a railcar lease, management of your rail assets or providing exemplary consulting results. We’re looking forward to creating true value with you!