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Canadian Railway Sees Huge ROI From RFID

CN's transportation-services division is using an RFID-based trailer-chassis rental system that not only reduces congestion but also improves chassis management.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
The Symbol tag is designed for a maximum read range, with a large internal antenna and an aluminum backing designed to boost that range once the tag is mounted onto a metal object. The tag is consistently readable from up to 40 feet, says Chris Schaefer, Symbol's director of RFID product marketing—though for the chassis pool, the system reads the tag at a much closer range. The cargo tag comes with four mounting holes, but rather than drill into the I-beam and potentially undermine its strength, CN opted instead to weld a mounting bracket on each chassis, then mount the tag onto the bracket. Using a handheld Symbol MC9060-G RFID computer, workers encoded the chassis ID to each tag. The extreme temperatures, shock and vibrations to which the tags have been exposed since being put into use have not had any detrimental impacts on their performance thus far, says Benmiloud.

As workers drive the trucks out of the yard, Symbol XR400 readers, mounted inside protective boxes located next to each of nine exit lanes in the terminal, read the tags and send their data to Shipcom middleware. The middleware sends the chassis number to a computer inside the gatehouse, where it automatically appears in the chassis-number field of a chassis-rental form. The gatehouse operator then views a video screen linked to cameras that pick up the ID numbers marked on the containers), keys in the proper container number and sends the complete rental form, including the date and time of rental, to CN's back-end chassis rental and billing systems. When the rental chassis returns to the yard, interrogators posted around the entrance gates read its tag and send the ID and the date and time of return to the middleware. The middleware transmits it to the back-end system, which marks the chassis as returned and completes the billing process.

A close-up view of the chassis and tag.

While CN did not previously rent chassis to shippers, it did send many out of the terminal each day with CN trucks. Keeping track of those chassis was difficult; a gatehouse worker unable to see the ID painted on a chassis' I-beam clearly might fail to record it as the truck left the facility. Since CN often did not know where all of its chassis were at any given time, the Brampton facility needed to replace missing chassis on a regular basis. At times, more than 100 chassis could be unaccounted for, says Benmiloud.

Today, the company can account for nearly all its chassis at all times. As such, it has been able to avoid buying new chassis, and to reduce the size of its chassis inventory. This, Benmiloud says—combined with revenue generated by the chassis pool and a billing system markedly more reliable and accurate than the one it had used for storage fees before developing the pool—has enabled CN to earn a return on its RFID investment approaching C$500,000.

More importantly, says Benmiloud, CN's intermodal customers are more satisfied because the streamlined transfers of cargo containers from rail to truck and out of the terminal gates have led to more on-time shipments. In addition, its customers no longer worry about inaccurate bills.

"Customers used to have resources dedicated to checking our billing," says Benmiloud. "Now they don't want to do that."

In the future, CN would like to replicate this chassis-pool rental system at its other intermodal facilities throughout Canada (the company operates a total of nine) and is also looking to expand the use of RFID at its Brampton terminal. Tagging the containers and placing readers on the cranes that lift them would enable CN to improve its method of tracking its customers' incoming and outgoing shipments. Benmiloud says the company is presently considering security applications based on the RFID system.

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