Bringing technology to play in road and rail cargo

VTT Technical Research Centre is continuing its studies on freight traffic and logistics between Russia and Finland. The latest findings from the Finnish research group confirm that developing information processes and increasing automation is one key to significantly improving efficiency. And the introduction of RFID remote identifier systems, in particular, offers potential benefits along the entire supply chain – from customers and operators to handlers and border authorities.

The VTT project, which ran from end-summer 2009 to February 2010, assessed various options for exploiting electronic systems and messages between a Finnish timber company and a Russian logistics operator. In addition the research team analysed an automatic railway wagon identification system for transit between Russia and Finland.
Results confirm that the exchange of end-to-end messages for freight transport still entails the manual input and receipt of information – both time-consuming and subject to human error – by email, phone and fax. In addition, as pointed out by VTT research scientist Jarkko Lehtinen, problems specific to trade with Russia include the fact that unlike most European countries, English isn’t the common language. Furthermore the presence of a real physical border disrupts traffic flow. “It takes about 25 minutes to handle all the paperwork for a single truck at the Finnish-Russian border,” he told Railway Pro. “And for trains the process is even longer,” he added. The study also revealed the overall lack of transparency in road and rail logistics chains.

Reaping the benefits

Automating processes related to data collection, transmission and recording can help improve various aspects of logistics management. Implementing ‘intelligent’ solutions offers greater reliability and more detailed information along the chain, optimises the use of infrastructure and wagons, as well as boosting the security of goods. Also by receiving information upstream, Railway Undertakings (RU) are better able to reschedule services in the case of disruptions and ensure maintenance programmes remain efficient.

Giving physical wagons digital ID

‘Intelligent’ solutions include GPS satellite, internet or WLAN positioning, or a combination of all three, as well as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. The latter facilitates the steering of freight flows and traffic by tagging freight units. The information obtained by RFID is real-time, with processes tracked on an information network plus various mobile devices. “RFID tags form part of the long path towards transparency in the logistics chain,” said Mr Lehtinen. “Their role is to control the coming and going, the departure and arrival of cargo, and so provide shippers and clients with vital information for better managing their operations.”  In addition, certain forwarding companies are keen to obtain a day-to-day update on the location of their cargo, in order to keep their end of the supply chain working efficiently, e.g. trucks and teams for transferring goods on arrival. Less than container load (LCL) shipments can also gain from real-time data, e.g. when a driver transfers cargo to the consignee, the shipper is immediately informed.
But one of the drawbacks of this reader-based technology, as pointed out by Patrick Mantell, senior advisor for eBusiness at the UIC (International Union of Railways), is that stationary wagons cannot be located.  “True, but the majority of shippers don’t want or need real-time information on their cargo all the time,” responded Mr Lehtinen. “It’s like purchasing online – you want to know when your order is sent and when it will arrive. But the ‘inbetween’ information is less crucial,” he reckons. The electronic seal is one application based on RFID technology in use in logistics chains today. Integrated into a normal mechanical seal, it is capable of revealing if the latter has been broken and the transport unit penetrated by communicating electronically with a reader device. By combining the manual seal with electronic components, the overall integrity of the seal is enhanced to further reduce the risk of goods tampering during transit, as well as providing up-to-date vehicle and wagon identification data. According to the VTT, in the US such remote identification of wagons in the rail sector has already been in use for 20 years.  And in Finland, the same technology is in use at the harbour gates of Mussalo (Kotka) and Vuosaari (Helsinki).

Agreeing on standards

Despite the appeal, introducing electronic data to logistics chains can only truly work if common standards are established between all players. And VTT’s research shows that cooperation needs to be stepped up, namely by agreeing upon standards, developing a shared information technology platform and identifiers that can be read across the board (and borders). Mr Mantell believes that bringing Railway Undertakings and Infrastructure Managers to the table to reach this common ground poses a major challenge. “The wagons have the tags, but the tracks are equipped with the readers, so the Infrastructure Manager is the first in the chain to receive the data captured,” he said. “But what is the incentive for the latter to invest in equipping its tracks and transfer this data to the Railway Undertaking?” he wonders.
Obviously the greater the number of players linking the rail cargo chain, the more complicated the process of reaching accord. The separation of rail infrastructure and operations into distinct entities, the growing number of operators, plus more wagons moving across borders and being used by different operators are all factors that multiply the steps towards agreement making. If one Railway Undertaking isn’t interested in automating operations, the chain is broken.
For Finland and Russia, developing remote identification of railway wagons calls for an RFID forum.  One advantage here is that in Russia the rail infrastructure and operations are all managed by a single player – Russian Rail (RZD). And with Finland’s Infrastructure Manager RHK fulfilling a largely administrative role, Finnish Rail (VR) has more influence over traffic management. Hence in theory, developing and managing such a tracking system should prove simpler than in countries with strongly defined separate bodies, e.g. the SNCF and RFF (France), Renfe and ADIF (Spain) or Trenitalia and RFI (Italy).
“Technology is only one part of the solution for boosting the efficiency of rail freight,” believes Mr Mantell. “Close
collaboration between Railway Undertakings and Infrastructure Managers is also crucial.”

Next steps

Results from the VTT project will be channelled in three directions – for use by clients who participated in the research to improve their operation; by the Finnish Ministry of Traffic and Communications, plus other authorities, in their development strategy for trade, and finally VTT will use the results to fuel its ongoing work in this field. “For us, research on trade and logistics between the two countries is a continuous process,” said Mr Lehtinen. “Finnish companies and authorities are always interested in how to grow this corridor. As a neighbouring country Russia is one of Finland’s main trading partners, while Finland is the gateway to Russia for transit cargo,” he added.

by Lesley Brown

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