August 6, 2009 By Blake Harris
Because it is more environmentally friendly than road transport, rail transport is strongly supported by the European Union. However, the difficulty of accessing information about rail freight services and facilities, particularly for international cargo, has meant most companies prefer to use road transport.
But this is now changing with a new GPS system coupled with Internet-based tracking. Not only does the system provide full freight details for 23,000 stations in 40 countries, but also can instantly indicate the position and progress of individual wagons. This means that users have fast access to all relevant information to simplify use of the rail network and can keep continually up to date on where their cargo is located.
Moreover, the system has already been extended to cover Russia and the Ukraine, enabling tracking of the increasing amount of rail cargo coming from China where rail transfer is three to four times faster than sea transport.
The system is the brainchild of Czech SME JERID, a company which specialises in rail transport software. They saw the need for a system that not only could provide full information about the international railway network - what can be carried, where goods can be loaded, etc. - in graphical form but also could track loads in real time.
"When we started the project, the only generally available rail maps were printed," explains Petr Kroca of JERID in a published statement. "While electronic maps are now more widely available on the Internet, they are without a sufficient predicative 'railway' layer. Users of railways for transporting goods had no information about where the stations were or how goods could be accepted - this is why we started this project."
JERID processes and provides information on rail freight transport for the whole of Europe and has many databases and much software with catalogs of wagons, lists of stations, distances between stations, and so on. So in creating E_RAILMAP, as the software is called, the objective of was to develop a software package that could visualize all this.
"Our initial idea was to gather all the information about the position of stations suitable for the transport of cargo in all European countries," says Kroca. "But we quickly realized that this map was a very good basis for displaying other information - so we went further and tried to connect to different systems that provided dynamic information: positions of wagons, locomotives, goods trains..."
The result is a powerful system that obtains data from national railway companies and independent GPS-based wagon tracking. National railway systems can be queried to find the position of freight wagons in terms of railway station number. These numbers are shown on the E_RAILMAP map and so wagon positions can be displayed. Alternatively, wagons can be fitted with GPS positioning and mobile phone equipment to send regular SMS messages to the JERID server, allowing real time tracking of a wagon's location.
E_RAILMAP received a boost when it won the EUREKA 2009 Innovation Days Award for outstanding technological and commercial achievement. "It was a big surprise," says Kroca. "But when I filled in the proposal and answered all the questions of the award committee, I realized how successful our project had been."
Kroca notes that they are now seeing an increase in rail transport from China. "This is the future for rail as sea transport takes 50 to 60 days, while rail transfer is possible in 17 to 19 days," he explains. "New special and scheduled rail services are developing with rail transport through Kazakhstan or Mongolia - although this has quietened a little during the current economic crisis, I expect it to pick up again soon."
Photo by ANITA.trans. CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic