Missing media item.

November/December 2017


Intermodal Benefits from Technology Grow in 2017, Should Increase in Future

Technology that could deliver a wide range of benefits for intermodal providers both immediately and in the future advanced on a wide range of fronts in 2017.


Those changes, including autonomous vehicles, blockchain, and positive train control, touched every corner of the industry.

“There is significant potential for autonomous vehicles in intermodal transportation,” said Ben Sawyer, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab and Center for Transportation and Logistics.

A key opportunity, he said, was the ability to utilize technology to gather large amounts of information to maximize automation for short-haul and final-mile shipments. Sawyer specifically cited platooning, which in news articles and reports has been paired with autonomous vehicles as the wave of the future for freight transport.

Meanwhile, American Trucking Associations adopted its first automated trucks policy, saying in a statement that connected vehicles can “dramatically impact nearly all aspects of the truck- ing industry including safety, emissions, productivity, efficiency and driver health and wellness.”

ATA’s position also gives legislators and government policy makers a clear picture and a comprehensive framework to develop the technology, ATA President Chris Spear said in October.

Widespread Automation Progress

Sawyer also told Intermodal Insights that all of the talk about autonomous vehicles today tends to overlook how much other decision making throughout the logistics industry, including intermodal, already has been automated.

Automation is helping motor carriers to cope with the greater difficulty and complex decision making in short-haul and final-mile operations plagued by traffic congestion. Those technological advancements by package delivery companies and other motor carriers over the past 15 years have automated steps such as routing and delivery confirmation.

The platooning concept already is in operation today, Sawyer said. It was illustrated early in 2017 with a demonstration at the Port of Los Angeles in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley. He further noted that the essence of platooning is to capture the value of paired operations and ultimately advance that technology toward moving more freight with fewer people.

“Everyone gets excited about truck platooning, but nobody talks about freight trains,” he said. Specifically, intermodal transportation in the rail industry leverages the ability to add more freight to a train without adding people to run it, just like platooning’s touted advantages.

Positive Train Control Advances


Much of the focus on rail technology in 2017 has been devoted to positive train control, or PTC, as part of a multi-year effort to further enhance rail safety. PTC is designed to use technology to prevent certain types of accidents such as derailments caused by excessive speed and head-on collisions.

“The goal of PTC is to operate trains more safely, something BNSF strives for each and every day,” said Tom Williams, a BNSF Railway vice president, making a comment expressed by all other railroads as well.

PTC is being installed on 5,000 locomotives and 11,300 miles of track, covering 80 percent of BNSF freight. More than 90 percent of that work already is done, and the carrier has run more than 800,000 successful PTC trips.

Williams said the railroad “is on track to meet the Dec. 31, 2018 deadline for PTC implementation. We continue to work closely with the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure PTC is done right.”

“The goal of PTC is to operate trains more safely, something BNSF strives for each and every day.”
Tom Williams
Vice President, BNSF Railway

Norfolk Southern’s PTC implementation is on schedule. It’s equipped more than 2,400 miles of track, mostly in the South. The carrier also is interested in exploring how PTC could eventually benefit intermodal and shippers as well through smoother operations.

Kansas City Southern was granted conditional FRA approval earlier this year to do demonstration projects on five subdivisions.

“The PTC team worked countless hours to satisfy the required conditions from the FRA on the New Orleans and Alexandria Subdivisions,” spokeswoman Doniele Carlson said. The other subdivisions covered by the demonstration are Pittsburg, Heavener and Shreveport.

Union Pacific, in a statement, described PTC as “a multi-dimensional process requiring a cross-functional, system wide approach” that includes integrating signals, GPS, wayside, base station and locomotive radios as well as antennas and satellites.

The carrier has installed PTC hardware on 98 percent of required miles and 94 percent of locomotives. Its total PTC investment is approximately $300 million in 2017 alone, and will be an estimated $2.9 billion in total.

Blockchain Shows Promise

As 2017 comes to an end, another much-discussed technology is blockchain. Blockchain creates an information sharing system based on pre-programmed logic. It is designed to create mutually acceptable agreements in a secure setting that can’t be manipulated or altered.

This concept has already been tested in the ocean carrier industry by Maersk Line.

For the freight industry, it offers the potential to manage a multitude of shipment transaction activities faster, and with reduced labor costs, said Craig Fuller, a founder of the Blockchain in Trucking Alliance, or BiTA, and CEO of technology company TransRisk.

Blockchain can touch every portion of freight shipments, including requests for proposals, contracts, payments, proof of delivery and dispute resolution. That potential prompted the formation of BiTA.

“What we wanted to do was basically bring together technology companies that are very large and mature, early stage tech startups and engineers and theorists and industry participants together to create an alliance to help usher in this technology into the industry,” Fuller said on an early November webinar.

A particular benefit could be creating “smart contracts,” which make transactions binding, resulting in lower costs by eliminating disputes after shipments move. The concept relies on collaboration and the establishment of protocols accepted by all, Fuller added.

Chris Burruss, president of BiTA, said the group intends to create standards that can be used for blockchain transactions in the motor carrier industry. Burruss, a former president of the Truckload Carriers Association, said the group already has 260 members, including carriers, technology companies, original equipment manufacturers and others interested in the concept.

New applications of advanced technology have also made a difference.

Another important factor, said Sawyer, is to recognize that people always will be an important presence in freight transportation.

“There is a lot of fear that automation will displace human workers,” said Sawyer, an expert on the interaction between people and machines. For motor carriers, he said, efforts to increase automation reflect the increasing difficulty in finding people to drive trucks, rather than an affinity for adopting automation on its own.

Download the PDF of this article