Gotcha! Freightliner tagged with digital tech

Unexpected item in the marshalling area? The same sort of technology that makes sure your purchases are all accounted for at the supermarket checkout is also being applied to some items that may be a little less easy to mislay at the bottom of your shopping basket. Namely all the motive power and all the rolling stock of Freightliner UK.

Working in partnership with Network Rail, Freightliner has begun a programme to fit all of its rolling stock and locomotives with Radio Frequency Identification tags, commonly known as RFID. Once fitted to the vehicles, the electronic tags will allow Network Rail’s trackside equipment to instantly identify the vehicle number and wheel position.

Forefront of technology

RFID tags are pre-programmed with the vehicle number and can be read by Network Rail GOTCHA monitoring sites. These sites can detect wheel damage, suspension defects and uneven loading. Once vehicles are equipped with the tags, Freightliner and Network Rail will be able to quickly identify any suspect vehicles and take the necessary action.

The black box on the orange locomotive is, in fact, grey. The RFID electronics are mounted just beneath the engineering plate, at a predetermined height for a line side reader to detect. (Freightliner UK)

“The roll out of RFID technology onto all Freightliner motive power and rolling stock assets will also serve as an enabler for future applications that can benefit from instant digital recognition of vehicles”, says a post from the company. Freightliner depots in England – at Leeds, Hope, Crewe, Mendip and Southampton – are in the process of fitting the tags.

Digital railway applications

Broadly known as the digital railway, the drive to embrace technological innovations continues on the UK network. The RFID technology has been around for a while, and is embedded in everything from credit cards to fridges. The hardware involved is robust enough to cope with industrial applications, such as railway operations.

The installation and deployment of digital infrastructure has been ongoing for several years. DB Cargo is among other operators in the UK. The Dutch system is already well advanced in adoption, as are several North American operators, where the continent-wide freight network can be much better protected from breakdown and damage by early detection of faults, such as wheel flats and uneven loads.

Theft as well as maintenance issues

The Gotcha system, developed by a partnership of Dutch and North American companies, provides data for Network Rail’s ‘Intelligent Infrastructure’ architecture, being deployed throughout the UK network. Infrastructure managers and operators benefit from Gotcha as a means of better maintenance management. Real-time analysis of rolling stock and motive power translates directly into less wear to the infrastructure.

Engineer in safety suit checks rail consignment
British Steel, not Russian stealing. Final quality checks before dispatching another consignment of fresh rails. At least in the UK they’re likely to remain in position until replaced (British Steel)

Among the most unusual applications of RFID technology exists in Russia. There, the permanent way itself is tagged. Whether that is for the monitoring of deployment, or to avoid theft is open to debate. Absurd as it may seem, such criminal activity is not unheard of. In 2019, an entire bridge structure, weighing 56 tonnes, vanished from a river crossing near Murmansk, on the border with Finland. Supermarket sweep with a difference.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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