Swiss rail freight operator SBB Cargo is equipping its entire fleet of freight cars with radio frequency identification technology to monitor their movements into and out of stations and yards. The deployment, which launched this year, follows an installation of RFID technology on all passenger cars operated by SBB Cargo's parent company, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB).
SBB Cargo expects to have 1,000 of its 6,700 freight cars tagged by the end of this month, and approximately 5,000 tagged by the end of next year. The technology, provided by Finnish RFID company Vilant, using Vilant's own UHF RFID readers, as well as ruggedized Ironside tags from Confidex, allows SBB Cargo and its customers to identify exactly when each car rolls into a station and when it leaves, as well as in what order the cars are coupled. That makes the loading and unloading process easier for SBB Cargo's customers, the company reports, while also preventing errors or freight delivery delays.
SBB Cargo, based in Olten, Switzerland, operates a freight network that has been transitioning from road to railroad. Altogether, the company transports 175,000 tons of goods throughout Switzerland daily. Freight moves through the country in SBB rail cars from one station to another, often passing through one or more of three marshalling (shunting) yards in which cars can be transferred from one train to the next. The company is responsible for the cars, whether they are loaded or empty, and is also charged with collecting freight cars from customers and shunting them back to marshalling yards for use by other recipients. Therefore, the movements of cars, and the monitoring of those movements, can be a highly complex process. At the same time, SBB notes, errors are expensive—if a loaded car is delayed, or if no empty car is available when a customer needs one, the cost to customers can be high.
Traditionally, freight car management has been a manual process involving rail yard personnel walking along the tracks with pen and paper, writing down cars' serial numbers, and then bringing that paperwork back to the office. Not only is the manual method slow, but it is prone to errors since numbers are first handwritten, then keyed in at the office, based on that handwriting. For customers whose cargo is loaded into cars on the tracks, information about what freight has arrived at each station can be delayed by hours or days.
Therefore, SBB Cargo has been looking to technology to improve that process, according to Christian Schmidt, SBB Cargo's director of asset intelligence. The RFID deployment, Schmidt explains, is part of SBB Cargo's automation initiative to create what it calls an "intelligent freight car." In addition to installing RFID technology to identify the movements of every loaded and empty car, the company is also using GPS and sensors to track the location of and temperature within some of its refrigerated cars, as well as humidity and vibration level.
With the RFID system in place, SBB Cargo's dispatchers and customers can receive an automatic alert via e-mail or text message when each car arrives at a station or yard, displaying not only which cars have arrived and the freight with which they are associated, but also the order in which they have arrived, so that loading or unloading can be arranged accordingly. The primary goal, Schmidt explains, is to prevent mistakes. "Sometimes, we have differences between the reality and the data in our systems," he says. "In general, with automation, we could increase our competitiveness and improve safety," since fewer employees would need to walk through the active railyard identifying cars.
SBB Cargo began investigating RFID more than a year ago, eventually selecting the Vilant system. Since then, it has been testing the technology on different types of cars with a variety of surface types, in order to identify the best tag placement and tag type. The tags are now being applied to both sides of every car, says Verena Dickmann, Vilant's project engineer.
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