Riding the Rails (electronically!)

Okay, so it might not be easy to lose 80 metric tonnes of malt barley.

But when your malt barley’s rolling about the continent inside a rail-car, surprisingly enough, it can be a challenge to keep “track” of! And consider: Each year, United Grain Growers ships its produce in a substantial 70,000 rail-cars.

Terry Romanishen is supervisor of rail analysis for United Grain Growers, in Winnipeg. In the old days, every time he wanted to find the exact whereabouts of a particular rail-car, he’d be on the telephone for approximately 15 minutes with a Canadian Pacific Railway representative. Then, he’d relay pertinent information by phone or fax to merchants and customers, along with any of 160 grain elevators.

Now, says Romanishen, getting the information he needs from CPR’s Web site takes between 30 seconds and one minute. Using an on-line equipment tracing form, he types in the numbers of one or many rail-cars and within moments gets numerous details, including the current location of each specified car, as well as its destination. Then the results can be quickly e-mailed to appropriate grain elevators, merchants and customers. (Romanishen personally does goes on-line to check up on rail-cars about five times daily, tracking between one and 20 cars each session. Moreover, he said across his company, about 20 tracking requests are conducted each day.)

Behind the scenes, Automatic Equipment Identification (AEI) units are spread along the railway tracks — about every hundred miles or so. Meanwhile, each car carries an identifying chip which is automatically scanned as the train passes, explained Mark Duperreault, Internet project manager for CPR in Calgary. (Think of a high-speed grocery checkout!) That information is relayed back to CPR’s computers and stored in Oracle databases. (In smaller towns, data is sometimes entered manually into the computer systems.)

The new way of tracking equipment, says Romanishen, means “big time savings. “They’ve improved on the system immensely. We can make decisions quicker and they’re more timely. We can decide if we want to divert a car, or push the car along to a customer.”

CPR has almost 25,000 kilometres of railway to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts, principal Canadian cities and 16 states in the American Midwest and Northeast. And for optimal competitiveness, it seems the commercial railway really needs to merge with the information highway.

“We have a tremendous effort underway to increase e-business functionality through our Web site,” says Debbie Pullman, manager of electronic commerce for CPR, based in Calgary. “Our customers can help themselves to information when they need it.”

The Web site provides access to a variety of services, including: equipment requests, equipment tracing and tender submissions. A railway map on the site displays CPR’s network, including the terminals and other facilities. Tracing options include access to the NetREDI application, which follows shipments across most North American rail networks. NetREDI taps into the TRAIN II database — maintained by the American Association of Railroads.

CPR is in the process of moving some of its Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) services to a Web interface, said Duperreault, and has started with the Bill of Lading application. The company currently offers a wide range of EDI services, including a number of invoicing and payment options.

While CPR has had an interactive Web site for the last two years, the company undertook a major $1 million relaunch of the site in November 1998. Developing the new site first required that CPR identify the stakeholders and their priorities for on-line business, according to Duperreault.

He says CPR’s latest effort has improved the user interface and navigability and added functionality. For example, while users were limited to tracking 12 pieces of equipment per session, the system now handles up to 48 requests at once from any given user.

Costs for maintaining and further developing the site are expected to be $1 million per year. Pullman won’t give any specifics on return-on-investment, except to comment: “We think it’s paying dividends.” She adds: “We’re saving money in certain aspects. We’re reducing paper transactions and seeing increased productivity in customer service.” But she said the real hope is to improve customer loyalty, by offering better service.

“The big benefit for customers is it’s 7 by 24,” says Duperreault. “We haven’t eliminated the telephone, but many users prefer to use the PC, and it’s accessible from anywhere in the world.”

CPR has launched a customizable page option called “Your Track,” where users can set up a password-protected customized Web page. “You can personalize reports or applications and see only information that’s central to you and your organization,” says Pullman. She says by January 1999, 500 new customers signed up since the re-launch of CPR’s site.

The United Grain Grower’s Romanishen says the revamped site actually now requires a couple additional mouse-clicks before he gets to the equipment-tracing form, compared to the previous version. But on the up-side, the system now provides more detailed information, he says.


CPR’s Iron Highway is a road-to-rail “intermodal” system that runs between Montreal and Toronto. The rail flat-cars carry 50,000-pound truck trailers between those two cities, and each terminal deals with between 80 and 100 of those trailers daily, explains Ron Fedak, manager of terminal operations and development for Iron Highway, based in Montreal. In February, the company officially rolled out on-line access to its scheduling and reservation application (those functions were previously available just by phone or fax).

Down the road, Iron Highway hopes to be able to offer on-line waybill exchange to its customers, Fedak says.

Iron Highway saw the use of a new kind of train to better accommodate truck trailers. As well, using handheld computers with wireless capability, terminal operators cross-check shipment data from the reservation system. Drivers sign the screens of the handheld units, and receipts are printed on the spot.

CPR’s Iron Highway has improved automated truck check-ins to such a degree that truck drivers can be in and out of the terminal within 15 minutes — a process than previously took about 1.5 hours, according to CPR.

Grace Casselman is a Calgary-based freelance writer specializing in high-technology.