Opinion: It's Time to Bring the Railroad up to Supply Chain Speed

Automating the exchange of rail supply chain data involves more than just digitizing old processes


An "intermodal data transfer" often means that a worker handles a printout of a bill-of-lading, in the hopes that a loading dock worker can read the data and will enter it manually into his own system. Clearly, those days are numbered, but the rail industry has to learn from the successes of other automated supply chains and make strides to automate its own data exchange processes while enabling seamless, event-triggered, cross-platform, cross-modal exchanges of inventory data.

Here's where the "last mile" example comes into play again, because supply chain management applications for rail are now hosted on the Web. Users don't have to install "client-side" software, nor do they have to purchase costly IT infrastructure to run and maintain complicated computer programs. Smaller railroads and short lines can use sophisticated solutions that were previously available only to large companies. With Web-based systems, the data has universality; automating the supply chain becomes that much easier. Creative energy is focused on optimizing and automating processes, not on struggling to bring everyone into the digital age by simply updating old paper forms.

Two other types of enabling tools are driving digital data exchanges beyond simple "paperless" processes: 1) shipper tools for all types of rail customers, and 2) mobile/wireless data capture and exchange solutions.

The shipper tools solution offers a one-stop Web site for all the critical tools any rail customer needs to manage their interaction with rail carriers — particularly those located on short lines. This tool delivers real-time "end-to-end" visibility to manage transportation services and logistics with any connecting rail carrier from any Internet connection.

Additionally, mobile or wireless tools enable any crew to send and receive data without leaving the cab or car, such as switch lists; car moves; online inventory; and locations from their office staff, other train crews or their customers.

By automating that exchange of essential supply chain data that is generated by railroads, and bringing portability to that data — not just making it "paperless" — the North American rail industry can bring 3PLs, shippers and truckers the benefits that have become increasingly commonplace in other supply chain sectors, including: consistent delivery of inventory; data transparency; data portability; more accurate ETAs and auto-exchanges of ETA data; business-rules-driven, auto-reconciliation of common commercial exchanges; reduction of "safety stock;" reduced reliance on capital for carrying safety stock; and fewer errors due to manual data entry.

So, let's get the rail industry beyond paperless, where these digital advances will be welcomed by the 3PLs, shippers and truckers who depend on the railroads as equal supply chain partners.

About the Author: Richard Flynn has over 35 years experience in the railroad industry. Currently he is AVP — Marketing and Sales at Railinc Corp., an interline data network and information services provider headquartered in Cary, N.C. Previously he served as a consultant to CSX Transportation during the Conrail integration and held a variety of operating and marketing positions over a 30-year period with Conrail and its predecessors. He has also been active in various collaborative interline initiatives.

For more information on the latest trends in the logistics space, see the article "The Analyst Corner: Fulfillment & Logistics" in the October/November 2004 issue of Supply & Demand Chain Executive.

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