Future of rail freight transportation – going digital to increase volume and efficiency

The rail freight industry in Europe has to transform to increase its market share and ensure sustainable economic growth. Rail freight players are not fully connected to one another and cannot share important data with other modes of transport. The ability to do this would go a long way to improving customer service, gaining operational efficiencies, and securing volume growth of one of the most environmental friendly transport modes.

Digitalization is changing the future of rail freight transportation.
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Envisioning the future of rail freight transportation

In collaboration with major research institutes in Sweden such as TFK, KTH and RISE, Ericsson promotes the adoption of the Semantic Web technology, to facilitate data exchange along the entire multi-modal supply chain. The standards of the Semantic Web enable the creation of a network of distributed databases that capture transport events and data at each stage of delivery chain and make them available to service suppliers, rail operators and customers. Semantic Web data formats and exchange protocols, such as the Resource Description Framework (RDF), allow the creation of a shared digital infrastructure, where information about every shipment can be shared along the entire multi-modal delivery chain. But importantly, each player, whether they be station terminals, train companies, road trucking, etc., still retains control over the data that it publishes.

The multi-party nature of freight logistics calls for a data exchange technology that maximizes digital information sharing, without a central common database or the pains and complexities of traditional systems’ integration projects. We call such an approach the Internet of Logistics, as it applies the principles of data distribution and open participation that have made the success of the internet. The rail freight community can now speed up the digitalization journey and deploy a federated network of logistic databases that will feed a new generation of data-driven applications.

The Internet of Logistics (IoL) – based on Semantic Web principles and standards – provides a secure, flexible, interoperable data exchange infrastructure for all participants of the supply chain. When applied to the freight rail sector and video scanning technologies, IoL supports the interchange of load unit data, rail car identification and location, multimedia files and documents, across all operators of a multi-modal Rail-Road-Air transport system. As such, IoL overcomes the limitations of traditional supply chain communication systems, for example EDI, and the complexity related to ad-hoc IT system implementations. In fact, data publishers do not need to share and agree upon a single data source, but they can conversely merge and search a distributed web of data sources, that grows as an organic system.

Digitalization in rail transport and logistics

The application of automatic detection and telemetry technologies is rapidly increasing, particularly in the freight and logistics sector. Shippers, carriers and freight forwarders are aiming to achieve full visibility of cargo position, conditions and expected arrival times.

End-to-end visibility of the supply chain is particularly important in international trade, which takes place across multiple modes of transport and interchange terminals. Unfortunately, this also requires a considerable amount of effort spent in hand-over operations, as well as document and cargo validation.

A large share of useful logistics data is produced by devices such as cameras, 3D laser scanners and radio-frequency identification readers (RFID). All of these can easily read cargo and vehicle features as they pass by reading points. These tracking technologies are helpful to both the road cargo and the rail freight sectors.

Internet of Logistics – Application to rail freight

European Rail Freight is a complex ecosystem, comprised of a wide variety of organizations that all share physical resources and networks, yet hardly exchange digital data. This presents an urgent need to accelerate the digitalization of rail freight to facilitate data sharing and collaboration. To accomplish this, all participants will need to do three things:

1. Establish a common vocabulary by adopting Semantic Web standards and Resource Description Framework (RDF), to model and organize data for the rail community, and to share and search freight rail container and wagon data.

2. Design and pilot RDF databases that collect and share data, including those generated by Intelligent Video Gates (IVG)–a combination of cameras, 3D laser scanners and RFID readers–to all interested and authorized parties.

3. Establish a web of connected and distributed databases that match the physical rail network and enables real-time information exchange between rail players and other modes of transport, such as maritime terminals and road trucking companies.

Sharing digital resources across distributed databases is possible if there is a global way to identify the objects. Data items should correspond to common global references, called URIs, that are somewhat similar to web addresses and can refer to: load units, vehicles, shipping documents, images, 3D scans, train composition, etc.

This approach ensures the maximum level of flexibility and distribution. Additionally, this development must consider the confidentiality and security of information by making sure that data control stays with the owner of the information. In a distributed environment, each data producer will retain control over access to its own database instance.

The new Internet of Logistics will extend and grow as more participants join in to feed and consume more data, driven by a positive network effect. The rail industry is heading towards putting the tools of the Semantic Web into the hands of innovative software developers, so they may create new AI-based applications that will enable prediction algorithms and optimization functions.

As more terminals and rail operators set up their own databases and start to generate and read data, the growth will be driven by the needs and commitment of the rail community. The IoL supports a distributed backbone that collects and publishes transport digital data. Rail terminals and operators who invest in big data and web-based solutions to optimize the entire rail system will experience a profound impact on their bottom lines by lowering costs as well as offering a more seamless and positive customer experience.


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