Globalization, containerization, and a surge in logistics connectivity have been a boon to the intermodal, multimodal, and global shipping industry.
While rail freight plays an integral and growing role as a high-volume low-cost transport option, there’s a glaring lack of business intelligence based on logistics visibility that’s hampering a greater adoption of rail as a preferred medium of transport.
Inland freight transport was initially dominated by roadways, largely due to their pervasive presence. Over time, however, other modes of transport — especially rail — have seen a surge in infrastructure investments and inclusion in the supply chain.
The containerization of cargo changed the way we move goods as well.
The seamless transition from road to rail and back that it allowed, has made rail cargo transport an integral part of long-haul cost (and carbon) conscious logistics plans.
Although there are advantages — and there are several — when transporting cargo via rail instead of road, there’s one crucial area where rail cargo transport still has some catching up to do — better visibility!
Supply Chain Visibility — Road vs. Rail
You've got several options to track shipments on the road — telematics systems, plug-n-play OBDII GPS vehicle trackers, or even tracking a driver’s cellphone.
When it comes to rail cargo transport however, there’s an acute lack of options, which leaves logistics managers blindsided.
The gaps in visibility can be severe; there’s no centralized system you can refer to, and no centralized authority you can turn to; you're usually at the mercy of a rail or freight company for status updates.
That’s a pretty big gap to contend with; the lack of accurate, timely information about the location and status of your rail cargo has some pretty far-reaching ramifications in an intermodal setup.
- A lack of rail cargo visibility makes it harder to connect the dots in a supply chain — missing a connection when you're dealing with shipments that use multiple modes of transport could cause a cascading delay. If you’ve ever missed a connecting flight to somewhere, you’d know what that’s like.
- A lack of rail cargo visibility makes it harder to be proactive — while you can do all you can to prevent delays, knowing when a delay is imminent or actually happening gives you enough of a head start to improve the odds of taking corrective measures to contain it when things don’t go according to a well-laid plan.
- A lack of rail cargo visibility makes it harder to manage volumes — it’s tough enough staying on top of a few shipments if you have a system of checks and balances in place. Consider how fast rail freight volumes are going up, and how critical it is for businesses to stay on top of their game; supply chains simply can’t afford to lose track and let operations derail.
Relying on manual tracking process and rail operators to trace and monitor rail cargo simply isn’t an option if you need to manage intermodal logistics operations, keep a cap on transit time, and reduce operational costs like railcar rentals.
Although tracing the train through rail tracking portals is an option, it just gives you sporadic whereabouts of your cargo and still can’t fill some serious gaps:
- First to last mile visibility — which isn’t possible through a rail tracking portal, since it can’t track your cargo while it’s in storage or in-transit to the rail yard or during local delivery.
- Load-level tracking — even if you track the train, there’s no way to tell if your cargo is even riding that train, which needs package-level tracking.
- Alerts in case of delay — if you want to take corrective action in case of a delay, you need to have a deviation/delay warning system, which isn’t possible with a basic rail parcel tracking system.
Having a system in place to spot delayed or idle rail shipments would help identify problems and manage issues before they’re beyond your control.
In simpler times, when transportation meant just getting goods from Point A to Point B, just knowing where your cargo is at regular intervals would have been enough.
With the increasing complexity of global supply chains and the pivotal role intermodal transport plays in supply chain management, however, you need more than just a dot on the map.
Though options for rail cargo tracking do exist, the trouble with them is that they lack LTL or LCL visibility. All a rail portal or 3PL can tell you is where the train is and that too if it is GPS or RFID-enabled; whether your cargo is in it is another question. It could take a while before anyone realizes there was a switch or a miss; valuable time that could cascade into days or weeks of delays in long-haul shipping.
Moreover, there’s a growing variety of condition-sensitive goods that board a train these days in the battle to reduce cost of shipping – food, pharmaceutical products, fresh produce, even fresh flowers or livestock; any delay could severely affect these goods.
In case of more complex or perishable cargo, you need to know the accurate location as well as the exact condition of your goods at any point of time between departure and destination in order to avoid any delays and/or losses.
A growing need for better business intelligence is also putting pressure on the rail freight industry to up their game. There’s a lot more to managing rail logistics in the modern age – constant cargo movement tracking, route deviations, detention at yards, dwell time at unloading docks, bottlenecks along the way, and much more. That’s where ‘real-time alerts’ and ‘package-level tracking’ come in handy; getting accurate data in time is the first crucial step to taking timely action.
Real-time rail cargo tracking is an essential step to boost supply chain agility — the ability to proactively spot issues and take corrective action — and it demands uninterrupted cargo visibility backed by data analytics.
In order to have a well-planned and implemented rail cargo tracking strategy in place, some of the essential criteria to meet include:
- Load-level and container-level visibility — Whether it is LCL cargo you are shipping through or a rail wagon/rake that you own for bulk-goods movement, you need granular visibility to make it actionable.
- First & last-mile visibility — Unlike the conventional manual tracking systems that provide incomplete or fractured visibility.
- Accurate and actionable information — The gap between a delay occurring and being detected can make or break any crisis management plan.
- Constant condition monitoring — Especially if you’re transporting fragile or condition-sensitive cargo.
- Dwell time management — Whether it’s the goods or the railcars they’re in, the longer they’re in transit, the more it’ll cost you.
- Accurate ETAs to manage tight timelines — With accurate ETAs for long-haul rail cargo, meeting commitments without exceptions is more likely.
Existing rail cargo tracking systems don’t really allow you to connect and coordinate the available information with corrective measures or actions that you need to take. Trying to locate rail cars through arduous follow-ups with rail freight operators is something that a good rail cargo tracking system can eliminate entirely.
But is that enough?
Having a tracking system in place is useful only if you've got someone manning the dashboard; to take full advantage of an early warning system like this, you need to act in time to manage disruptions and reduce delays. That's where a dedicated team — like you'd get in a supply chain control tower — comes in.
With that established, even with end-to-end visibility and analytics sorted, it will all go in vain if you cannot act upon the information in time. The control tower’s human touch and predictive analytics can work on smoothening the flow by helping you reduce the response time or to contain disruptions in the supply chain.
When setting up a supply chain control tower, the most important things to consider are - contextual data visibility, end-to-end supply chain control, predictive analytics with automated flagging, and real-time visibility that facilitates a smooth course of action throughout.
Comprehensively, a good rail tracking system needs to have a balance of:
- Granular tracking
- Personnel manning the system to make the most of it
- Analytics for prescriptive as well as predictive insights
This trifecta will ensure that you get the most out of your tracking system and improve efficiencies that, ultimately, make you more competitive as well as manage costs to shore up the bottom line.