Bunge Joins RailPulse™ Coalition

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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Agribusiness company Bunge has signed on as the first railcar-owning shipper of RailPulse, the coalition established in late 2020 to “facilitate and accelerate the adoption of GPS and other telematics technology across the North American railcar network to significantly increase visibility, efficiency, and safety.”

The RailPulse coalition comprises founding members Norfolk Southern (NS), GATX Corporation, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., TrinityRail, and Watco, which cumulatively own nearly 20% of the North American railcar fleet; plus The Greenbrier Companies, Union Pacific (UP) and Railroad Development Corporation (RDC).

According to RailPulse, these “forward-thinking railcar owners” are dedicated to “revolutionizing shipping by creating a neutral, open-architecture railcar telematics infrastructure that provides real-time information on a car’s location, health, and condition.”

Bunge’s participation in the coalition was announced Jan. 29. RailPulse reported gaining “a valuable partner committed to enhancing service levels, visibility, safety, and productivity within North American rail-based supply chains.”

“RailPulse’s open-architecture platform aligns with our vision of harnessing technology to improve operational efficiencies, optimize supply chain performance, and ultimately better serve our customers,” said Terry McDermott, Director of Supply Chain-North American Rail at Bunge.

“While the rail industry has lagged behind other transportation sectors in terms of digitalization, RailPulse aims to transform this landscape,” RailPulse General Manager David Shannon said. “With Bunge on board … , we are poised to drive tangible improvements by leveraging advanced technology and fostering collaboration among industry players to ensure high-quality service.”

(Image Courtesy of RailPulse)

Shannon is overseeing RailPulse’s pilot project, which he discussed late last year with Kevin Smith, Editor-in-Chief of International Railway Journal (IRJ), a Railway Age sister publication. Shannon told IRJ that the plan is to “pull the wraps” off RailPulse in second-quarter 2024, at which point it will be available as a commercial offer to any railcar owner who wants to participate. Following are excerpts from the IRJ report.

The RailPulse pilot project first identified potential telematics vendors. “Of the around 100 that were found and assessed by RailPulse and an independent consultant, 20 were selected to participate in a Request for Information (RFI) exercise,” according to IRJ. “A total of 10 responses were received, leading to the selection of three partner vendors for an initial year-long pilot project: NexxiotZTR Control Systems and Hitachi Rail Systems, working in partnership with Intermodal Telematics.

Shannon told IRJ that five key analytical measures were selected initially for the pilot: location via GPS; whether the handbrake is released, which is important to avoid accidental movements and potential damage to wheels; impact; the loaded/empty state of the railcar; and whether doors and hatches are open or closed.

“Initial work focused on limited tests of the proposed vendor technology in freight yards, which was extended in the second phase to main line testing,” according to IRJ. “This has involved various railcar types ranging in age from new to 50 years old, all operating in the challenging North American rail freight environment of varying weather conditions and often harsh handling.”

Shannon told IRJ that “[w]e wanted to make sure that this technology, in principle, would work in practice in this very challenging environment.”

According to IRJ, work has been “scaled up in the pilot’s final phase with around 2,200 railcars equipped with RailPulse technology currently in operation. The acquired data from these assets is also feeding the RailPulse software developed by the coalition in parallel to the testing program. A total of 12 companies who either own the railcars or are customers of these companies are now using the platform to monitor and record data on their assets, offering what Shannon describe[d] as a ‘single source of truth’ for the first time on location, health and condition of a single railcar.”

“Instead of a shipper buying some hardware and sticking it on his consignment on a railcar, and then using that data against the railroad, or a railroad putting their own equipment on and using it against the shipper in a claim scenario, everyone is looking at the same data, and we have a single source of truth,” Shannon told IRJ. “Provided you have the right to that data, you can get access either through an API to feed your own system or gain access through a RailPulse portal.”

According to Shannon, “the solutions presented and deployed by the vendors across the five pilot scenarios have often used the same principles but with subtle differences in how they are measuring or collecting the data,” IRJ reported. “Interestingly, many of these techniques have evolved throughout the process, according to Shannon, who says one vendor did a complete redevelopment of the architecture of how they were measuring some data points after realizing what they were doing was good, but not great.”

“‘We’re working with all of them to say what we’re seeing and to make recommendations for changes, if the data is good or bad, or delivery is not as timely as it should be,’” Shannon told IRJ.

“As well as the vendors, RailPulse has signed a 10-year agreement with RailInc, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) subsidiary, to leverage its experience in managing vast volumes of data across the North American rail freight industry, as well as the experience of providing 24-hour customer support,” IRJ reported. “RailInc is also supporting RailPulse to implement data management protocols, including data security, as well as to integrate railcar telematics device data into RailPulse’s backend systems. In addition, the agreement includes future data-sharing arrangements. RailPulse will have access to RailInc’s railcar location message, waybill, and its Umler system, which offers critical data on more than 2 million items of North American rail, marine and highway equipment, enabling it to enhance its telematics data, which includes providing the capability to map telematics data to all parties in a given waybill route.”

Shannon told IRJ that the plan is to “pull the wraps” off RailPulse in second-quarter 2024, at which point it will be available as a commercial offer to any railcar owner who wants to participate.

According to the IRJ report, “[a]long with coalition members, there are opportunities for additional vendors to come onboard. While the pilot vendors are continuing to invest to improve their capabilities to deliver better quality information, Shannon [said] they are getting ‘first mover advantage.’ Others are still well placed to participate in the program. For example, a fourth vendor currently working through the RailPulse certification process is potentially very attractive to several of the coalition companies ‘because they are measuring the maintenance and health of a wheelset in a way that none of our existing vendors are,’ Shannon [said]. ‘That is going to give them an opportunity to compete because they’re coming in with a very innovative solution that does all the stuff we require and then does things that a number of our customers are saying are really important additional features that they want.’

“Ultimately, Shannon hopes that RailPulse becomes an ‘app store’ where different providers can plug in their offer into a suite of services available to RailPulse users. ‘We’re not necessarily the creators of that IP,’ Shannon [said]. ‘We’re providing the platform where value-added IP can be presented to customers so these producers can make money while driving the core goal of delivering better data to improve service to the shipper.’

“The task of equipping the entire North American railcar fleet is obviously large but is the ultimate objective for the project. This will in the ‘long, long term,’ as Shannon put it, enable elimination of legacy technology such as a wayside detectors and change the whole structure of the railcar monitoring system on the North American network.

“In the medium-term, Shannon [said] the priority is equipping the merchandise railcar fleet, and not intermodal, which he [said] mostly travels on unit trains that tend to run from point to point and are already equipped with a great deal of tracking equipment, nor hoppers or gondolas for carrying coal.”

According to the IRJ report, “[a]nother key objective is to make joining RailPulse as frictionless as possible for the purchaser of a new railcar. Shannon [said] signing up should not be mandatory, but that the benefits of participating are so great that it becomes the default option.

“How the recipients of the data ultimately use it is of course up to them. But Shannon believes that as railways become more comfortable with the platform, they are likely to change some of their operating practices to deliver better service. Equally, leasing companies and other fleet owners are likely to develop more creative maintenance strategies to keep asset quality high. There is also hope that shippers armed with better predictions of when empty and loaded railcars will arrive will turn those shipments around faster, helping to improve planning and provide a much more pleasant experience for the customer, helping rail to compete more effectively with road.”

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