IoT Automates Rail Brake Testing for Logistics Firm

CFL Multimodal is piloting a 20-freight-car system that uses a mesh radio network system from Traxens to capture and transmit data about the functionality of car brakes, thereby preventing potential accidents and making testing more efficient for vehicles traveling across Europe or into China.
Published: July 8, 2019

European logistics company CFL Multimodal has deployed a system using Internet of Things (IoT) technology to track its freight railcars as they pass through Europe and across the New Silk Road to China. The system employs Traxens‘ IoT technology and consists of on IoT box installed on each car, which communicates as a mesh network via short-wave radio signals to other boxes, while leveraging a GSM cellular connection to the cloud. The system is intended to improve operational processes by reducing the time required for train brake testing and providing automated data about the functionality of each set of brakes. The second feature can help to ensure the brakes don’t fail during transit between stations, Traxens reports.

While CFL Multimodal is piloting the technology for brake testing this year, the Traxens system, known as Traxens Net, has been tested for fleet management as well. CFL’s long-term goals are to deploy its full Digital Train solution to automate freight management and brake safety, and to share relevant data to members of the supply chain.

CFL’s Marc Valette

CFL is a logistics service provider comprising 12 companies throughout six European countries. It provides management of rail freight in transit, rail car repairs, freight transportation and customs clearance. The firm operates a multimodal terminal in Bettembourg-Dudelange, on the North Sea-Mediterranean line, which serves as the crossroads of major transport routes.

Traxens began developing wireless technology for rail freight management two years ago, and CFL opted to start piloting the technology last year. “The aim of CFL is to digitalize all operations concerning train controlling in order to improve the fully manual operational process,” says Marc Valette, CFL’s innovation director. By using IoT technology, the company intends to reduce the amount of time required to prepare trains for transit, as well as improve safety control by making the testing process more transparent and automating the recording of data.

The system was first piloted in 2018 with a Traxens Box device installed on CFL’s flat wagons that travel between several stations throughout Europe, according to Florence Delalande, Traxens’ rail business unit director. Since that time, the solution has been deployed on approximately 20 freight cars across wider areas. In April of this year, the pilot was expanded to 20 cars traveling from Europe to China on the New Silk Road corridor. “The initial objective was to start with brake testing,” Valette explains. “We already had experience with using tracking devices and we are very confident in the technology.”

Brake testing is an essential part of rail management that can prevent catastrophic failures or accidents. If a train malfunctions after it has left the station, Delalande says, that “is the worst thing that can happen.” Such a scenario could not only risk the safety of the operators and the freight on board, but also disrupt all transit on that rail line. The brake-testing system, deployed to prevent such accidents, has changed little throughout the past 100 years. An engineer drives the train forward, and an individual on the ground visually confirms that each car is braking properly by climbing under the car.

This process takes about 45 minutes to complete for a 700-meter (2,300-foot) train, Delalande says, whereas the Traxens system requires only 15 minutes. It leverages the Traxens Box on each car, she says, connected to multiple sensors attached to the brake system in a non-intrusive way. Those sensors are designed to detect when brakes connect and release; however, the company has declined to share which specific sensors are being used. The boxes come with GPS data, as well as numerous sensors.

The wireless mesh system utilizes a proprietary RF network known as Traxens Net, which employs short radio transmissions using a proprietary frequency and an air-interface protocol. Companies in the maritime shipping industry utilize Traxens Net to create a mesh network of containers on ships, and to transmit that data via cellular or satellite communications.

During the CFL pilot, the brakes are tested by the engineer at each station, by simply having workers pressing the brake controls and viewing the data captured from the system on an app. At the same time, the results are captured in the cloud for access by CFL management.

However, Valette reports, the long-term goal goes far beyond brake testing. The company hopes to create a network that can be shared with the full community of stakeholders, including railcar owners, cargo owners, car manufacturers and rail-line owners. That could help companies to manage not only safety data, but fleet location for scheduling purposes, and to provide door-to-door visibility for cargo owners. “All the people share common data in a structured and secured environment,” Delalande says.
In the future, the system could be used for predictive maintenance, and to monitor when cars are sent for repair at specific portions of the rail station. The system aims to make train preparation more efficient and accurate, Delalande says.

By using the system, Delalande says, CLF has found to date that it saved 30 minutes on each testing process, and that it has been able to continuously monitor the brake system after the train departs from the point of origin. The solution also allows testing to be conducted by the driver, as opposed to two agents, thereby further reducing labor expense and safety risk.

During the coming months, Valette says he expects the technology to improve the transparency and traceability of the train control operations, and to prevent errors that could take place with the manual brake-testing method. Equally as important, he says, is the potential to increase worker safety “and to improve working conditions of our workers,” as well as providing “preventive support by detecting issues with brakes automatically.”