CN Rail brings RFID aboard Brampton intermodal terminal

Canadian National Railway Co. on Tuesday said it has set up a radio-frequency identification system to track goods on one of its intermodal terminals that may be expanded across its operation.

CN said it is working with Bell Canada to set up the system using ruggedized RFID tag readers, rugged mobile computers and RFID cargo tags from Symbol Technologies, Inc., and middleware from Shipcom Wireless. The first terminal to use the system is based in Brampton, Ont., where RFID tags are being applied to approximately 2,000 chassis, the frame on wheels that an intermodal container is secured to for roadway transport by a truck.

RFID, a wireless technology that has been widely touted as a means of improving supply chain tracking, will replace manual methods to pinpoint the status and location of a chassis, CN spokesman Mark Hallman said.

“What was key with this business — and because railroading is capital-intensive business – was accurate, timely inventory of where our chassis are, to be able to basically manage them in the most effective way possible,” he said. “Here we’re getting almost like a real-time inventory. You’re avoiding some of the potential issues with manual reporting of numbers and potential for errors.”

For the first nine months of this year, CN generated more than $1 billion in revenue from its intermodal operation, Hallman said. Import containers arrive by steamship in Vancouver or Halifax and are then transported by train. CN also provides a domestic intermodal service of containerized goods to the United States.

“What we hope is that this will improve the utilization of this fleet,” Hallman said. “The more that you can cycle your fleet in a timely manner, you’re effectively able to increase more capacity.” 

Pending the tests of the system in Brampton, CN is thinking about taking a similar approach with RFID at its other intermodal terminals, Hallman added.

One of the challenges in the CN deployment was mounting the tags to the chassis, said Andrew Mitchell, Bell’s director of enterprise wireless solutions. In order to avoid drilling holes in the container to affix the tags with rivets, Bell helped design a welded frame into which tags could be slipped. 

“As you can appreciate, with tracking chassis, we’re in an environment that’s got exposure to petroleum products” that shouldn’t be drilled into, Mitchell said.

“As unlikely as it sounds to lose something of the size of a chassis, it does happen,” said William Bangert, senior vice-president, Bell ICT Solutions and Enterprise Business Development. “RFID offers a significant increase in reliability.”

The same staff that has traditionally been responsible for managing and tracking the chassis are in charge of the RFID readers, Hallman said, but the software will automatically populate some of the fields in the electronic form to speed up the process.

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