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SBB Cargo Provides Automated Alerts of Freight Car Movements Via RFID

The Swiss rail company is deploying a passive UHF system from Vilant to track the movements of thousands of freight cars as they arrive at and leave rail stations and shunting yards.
By Claire Swedberg

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.

The unique ID number encoded on each tag is linked to the corresponding rail car's serial number and type in SBB Cargo's software. SBB Cargo installed RFID readers along the tracks at the entrance and exit to multiple stations and railyards, with a single Vilant Railway Reader unit installed on each side of the track at every location. (SBB Cargo declines to reveal how many stations currently have readers installed). The devices can capture tag reads well at distances of up to 150 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour), Schmidt says. The readers are installed within about 3 to 6 meters (9.8 to 19.7 feet) of the tags so as to ensure a high read rate.

SBB cargo stores data in its management software regarding what cargo, belonging to which customer, is loaded in each freight car. The RFID tag is linked to that car's ID, so that every time it passes a reader, the software is updated to indicate not only which car has passed, but whose freight is being transported within.

As tagged freight cars pass a reader, the device captures each unique tag ID number, and sends that data to a cloud-based server. Vilant's Train Analyzer software interprets the tag ID linked to each car's own ID number, then forwards that information to SBB Cargo's software on the rail company's own back-end database. Motion sensors are also installed with the readers, to detect when a car passes without an RFID tag. This enables the company not only to identify when a car needs to be checked manually, but also to determine that it needs to be tagged to be included in the automated system.

Based on who has authority to receive alerts, the notifications are sent to those authorized parties—for instance, dispatchers at the specific yard or station, as well as the customer whose freight is inside each car. Dispatchers can use that data to appropriately manage the movement of cars from that location, while customers can utilize it to ensure that cars are quickly loaded or unloaded so that they can be delivered to their destination.

"The main value of RFID is the fast reading ability, including reading usage with fast moving objects [cars]," Schmidt states. "We see this as the first step on our roadmap. Our job is to connect different data sources and allow different users in our system—for example, our dispatchers, yard workers and customers—to identify freight cars in real time."

The Federal Swiss Railways is also tagging its entire fleet of cars, including passenger cars. It began doing so in 2013, and finished this year. "We see a huge field of opportunities in logistics," Schmidt says, "with controlling and analyzing the wagon stream as part of it." For example, the technology could be used to analyze how fast cars are moving, thereby identifying problems, such as delays when a particular car is moving too slowly. The company could also analyze when and where freight traffic is heaviest. This is important, SBB notes, since the firm has been expanding its rail network and seeks to increase traffic flow on underutilized tracks, or through underutilized stations.

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