How Is RFID Being Used in the Railroad Sector?

By RFID Journal

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Ask The ExpertsHow Is RFID Being Used in the Railroad Sector?
RFID Journal Staff asked 11 years ago

In what ways has the industry utilized the technology?



Dear Majid,

Your e-mail requesting information about the use of radio frequency identification in the railroad industry was passed along to me. There are many different ways in which railroads have employed RFID technologies. Uses tend to fall into the following categories:

Asset Management

A few years ago, business was booming for the intermodal transportation services arm of the Canadian National Railway (CN). Increased usage of its intermodal freight-transportation terminal in Brampton, Ontario, however—where cargo containers arrive on railcars and are transferred onto trailer chassis, after which trucks haul them away—was causing congestion problems. To alleviate this issue, the terminal turned to an RFID-based chassis-rental solution that freed up traffic at the facility's cargo-container storage area, and also led to improvements in CN's chassis management. These improvements, combined with a reliable billing system, have generated a return on CN's RFID investment, to the tune of a half-million Canadian dollars (see Canadian Railway Sees Huge ROI From RFID).

Thousands of rail cars in South Africa have been equipped with passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags, allowing them to be more effectively tracked, maintained and inventoried. Spoornet, a South African provider of rail-freight services, and the region's largest rail operator, equipped its fleet of 80,000 freight railcars with RFID tags and also installed interrogators at various locations within Spoornet's 14,400-mile network of train routes. This network is served by 18,800 miles of track (see South African Railroad Switches to Passive RFID).

Finnish state-owned railroad operator VR Group and its VR Transpoint subsidiary, Finland's largest logistics services provider, are employing EPC Gen 2 RFID technology to track 10,000 rail-freight wagons, locomotives and passenger cars, thereby helping the company and its subsidiary to manage rail cars and work processes within its rail yards. One advantage of the RFID system is that VR Transpoint's personnel can now identify wagons automatically, and at a distance, by using the handheld readers—workers can walk alongside a train and use the devices to interrogate each rail car's tags. As they do so, the wagons are identified and the information is automatically transferred to the logistics system. If, for instance, a train car is slated to be removed from one train and shifted to another, this information will be displayed on the employee's screen. Likewise, after wagons have been shifted and a new train has been assembled in the yard, workers can confirm that the cars are located behind the correct locomotive, and in the intended order (Finnish Railroad Streamlines Operations).


China's Guangshen Railway Co. uses RFID-enabled tickets, which help to greatly reduce the incidence of ticket counterfeiting (see Chinese Railway Switching to RFID Transit Cards).

And Norwegian State Railways (NSB), along with the 19 counties across Norway, have rolled out contactless ticketing across the nation's public railway system. The introduction of radio frequency identification into tickets and ticket machines at NSB was performed to improve customer service, by giving customers greater control over how they use the transportation services (see Norway Railroad to Roll Out E-Tickets).


Tube Lines is one of three companies with a 30-year contract to maintain and operate London's underground rail system. As such, the firm is under constant pressure to meet safety and maintenance standards for the track network across the three railway (tube) lines for which it is responsible, as well as the trains that run over those tracks. By affixing passive UHF EPC Gen 2 RFID tags to each of the Piccadilly Line's engines, as well as installing RFID portals at the train-cleaning area's entrance and exit, the company can record how long it takes to clean each train (see RFID Goes Underground in London).

Trafikverket, the Swedish Transport Administration responsible for the infrastructure of Sweden's transportation sector, has deployed approximately 150 sensors along its 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles) of track. The sensors record the number of axles passing the sensor, and measure the temperature and vibration levels. If a sensor detects an axle that it too hot, it issues an alert to that train's driver, instructing him or her to stop at the next station so that the axle can be inspected. That prevents damage to the rail car, and to the track (see RFID in Rail).


Bombardier Transportation, the rail-equipment division of Bombardier Inc., demonstrated an RFID-enabled rail-worker safety solution this year in Atlanta, in partnership with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). The system will be installed on MARTA's Green Line, between the Bankhead and Ashby stations, later this year, after the agency receives approval from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that is funding the project. The FTA selected the system for trial, hoping to learn whether or not the technology could reduce the risk of accidents involving rail-transit workers and trains. Bombardier's TrackSafe solution, slated for demonstration by MARTA, was among eight proposals that technology providers submitted to the FTA (see Atlanta's Transit Authority to Test Bombardier's Rail-Worker Safety System).

There is also some interest in using RFID in subway systems to inform riders of a train's expected arrival time. However, I'm unsure if any transportation agencies have actually deployed such a system to date.

—Mark Roberti, Founder and Editor, RFID Journal

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