RFID keeps Canada railway terminal on track

We've all had the exasperating experience: a small object, perhaps a pen or eye glasses we were using moments ago vanishes into thin air the instant it's laid down on the desk.

The folk at Canadian National Railway Co. (CN) can empathise with that. In their case, however, the missing object is often a hulking chassis, a wheeled frame hauling a 20 or 40-foot steel intermodal container with over 24,000kg of cargo. "It's hard to believe you could lose something as big as a chassis," said William Bangert, senior vice-president, information and communication technology (ICT) solutions and enterprise business development at Bell Canada in Toronto.

But that was precisely what was happening at CN's intermodal terminal in Brampton, Ontario until the railway company enlisted the help of Bell Canada and Symbol Technologies, to deploy ruggedised radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on some 2,000 chassis to track their whereabouts.

RFID technology is extensively used by manufacturers and retailers to track products as they travel through the supply chain.

The Brampton yard, which is CN's largest intermodal terminal, is the first Canadian rail facility to experiment with and reap RFID's benefits.

When a train pulls into the Brampton terminal, the intermodal containers it is carrying are lifted off the vehicle and loaded onto several chassis. The chassis are then transported to a CN yard until they are picked up by the clients for delivery to the appropriate location.

Clients are charged a per diem fee for the time they use the chassis.

The Brampton terminal generated some US$877 million in revenues last year by handling intermodal containers from the U.S., and from provinces across Canada.

Clipboards can cause trouble Before the deployment of RFID tags, CN personnel jotted the serial numbers of the containers and their destination on a clip board. Personnel checked this record to locate a chassis.

But manual reporting often resulted in inaccuracies according to Remy Benmiloud, manager of intermodal excellence at CN. "Numbers could easily be obscured by debris or other containers or misread by personnel."

It was not uncommon for employees to roam the yard searching for a chassis with the wrong number. "We needed a better tool to track chassis, reduce cycle times and de-congest the yard," said Benmiloud.

Last year the Brampton terminal launched a pilot program to deploy RFID technology in the facility.

Bell Canada acted as systems integrator for CN and deployed Symbol’s new Cargo Tags with the firm's multi-protocol XR400 fixed RFID readers, which were upgraded to withstand the Canadian climate.

In addition to the tags and readers and MC9060-G RFID rugged mobile computers, Bell also used RFID middleware from Shipcom Wireless of Houston.

The RFID tags contained the chassis' serial number. Readers installed at the yard gate recorded the chassis' entry or exit. Information associated with the chassis - such as container number, last known location, and even maintenance records - reside in a database.

"We were getting almost real-time inventory," said Mark Hallman, CN spokesman.

The cycle time for each chassis (the time it takes to load and unload a chassis) was cut down from seven to four days with the use of RFID tracking, according to Bangert.

"The faster you can cycle your fleet, the better chances you have of increasing capacity," Hallman explained.

Bernmiloud said CN is reviewing the Brampton project with an eye towards possibly extending the RFID implementation at its other intermodal terminals in Canada.