INTRO: An EU-funded research project will confirm the feasibility of equipping Europe’s wagon fleet with on-board tracking systems that report their location and status to a central database via the internet. This will greatly improve arrangements for tracking consignments, and for getting empty wagons where they are needed

BYLINE: Eckhard Kuhla, Athanasios Ballis and Marc Guigon*

International wagonload traffic in Europe is failing to compete effectively with road haulage. Apart from the question of charges, transit times are often too slow and arrival times unpredictable. Too often, the customer is unable to discover where his goods are during a journey across two or more countries.

The same factors make it very difficult to deploy the wagon fleet efficiently. At the strategic level, the EUROP (UIC wagon pool) and RIV (return wagon to sender) regimes provide the principal mechanisms for managing the European wagon fleet that is not committed to specific block train movements, such as large flows of bulk materials or intermodal traffic.

The result is that managers responsible for wagons carrying international traffic lose track of them, so it is impossible to optimise the geographical distribution of wagons available for loading. Here there may be a shortage, while 100 km away there is oversupply. Wagons are returned empty to their owners for repair instead of being fixed locally and then moved productively.

Fortunately, this situation may be coming to an end. At the strategic level, RIV2000 has laid the foundations for wagon management based on private-sector finance criteria, while UIC is investigating a new wagon regime (the ’new wagon status’ project) that ties in overall wagon management with bilateral agreements on fair prices being paid to the owner for the use of his wagons by others.

At present, no integrated wagon fleet management exists in Europe. Tracking is generally based on data provided by train control management, while the distribution of empty wagons is carried out by dispatchers relying on past experience rather than real-time data.

This works relatively well at the national level since it is based on established procedures between national operators and infrastructure managers to assure empty wagon supply.

As soon as wagons cross borders, however, the number of interfaces increases, leading to poor wagon utilisation, especially when the players speak different languages.

On-line fleet management

The need for on-line fleet management to meet market requirements is obvious and urgent. To meet this need the F-MAN (fleet management) project is developing an internet-based wagon management and reservation scheme that offers real-time track and trace functionality. This will be achieved by installing on each wagon an on-board terminal device (OBT).

The OBT contains a GNSS (satellite) receiver to locate the wagon, and an SMS-based device that communicates by GSM cellular radio with a Ground Station module at headquarters; this interprets the messages in a standardised form. Using this information, the time of arrival for each wagon can be estimated and made available to customers.

When F-MAN is deployed, there will also be a central Decision Support System to aid wagon management at the operational level, taking technical, commercial and financial criteria into account.

The F-MAN project was launched in October 2001 and is funded by the European Community under the Information Society Technologies programme. The research team and their main tasks consists of: