Please fill out the form below and the IntelliTrans team will get in touch with you.

Effectively Managing Risks in Your Rail Transportation Network

by | IntelliTrans | Apr 22, 2024 | TMS Risk Management

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in transportation, where organizations are using applications and tools that help move more product quickly and efficiently. Technology also helps companies respond quickly—and, in many cases, proactively—to evolving situations and requirements. This, in turn, helps manage risks in the rail transportation network. 

By analyzing routes, transit status, and evolving factors such as weather or embargos, technology helps companies predict potential delays and costly scenarios before they even happen. Defined by Gartner as advanced analytics that examine data or content to answer the question “What is likely to happen?”, predictive analytics, along with other technologies, help shippers keep close tabs on ever changing conditions. Customers can be updated and pivot accordingly in case of a serious problem.  

Managing Unpredictable Rail Service

For break-bulk shippers, the unpredictability of rail service makes the mode a perfect backdrop for leveraging the power of technology such as predictive analytics. “Rail service can be hit or miss at times and the challenge is you don’t always know when that’s going to happen; there are so many factors that can affect a shippers ability to meet demand,” says Brian Cupp, Director of Operations at IntelliTrans. When the deep freeze impacted much of the U.S. this winter, for example, frozen rail switches led to some unexpected shipment delays.  

Of course, it doesn’t take a blizzard to bring a transportation mode to its knees. Rail service may run like a well-oiled machine for several weeks only to be sidelined when a crew calls in sick, a brand-new crew comes onboard, or the railroad goes through a period of high staff turnover. These events can be especially impactful in the break-bulk transportation industry, where there’s usually limited space in the yard and small hiccups in switching service can cause impactful disruptions.

Manually predicting empty railcar capacity in advance is never easy, and neither is matching up demand with the exact number of railcars that will be available on any given date. Using predictive analytics, companies can input the number of rail cars that a shipper wants to load per day over a defined period of time and determine car supply surplus or shortage over that demand period. Using that information, IntelliTrans helps shippers mitigate yard capacity risks and prevent railcar shortages. 

For instance, one dashboard might show demand for the coming three weeks and the days of the week that the shipper may run short on returning empty railcars. Conversely, the dashboards will also alert a shipper if too many loaded rail cars are on hand, which would effectively signal that there isn’t enough room in the space-constrained yard to bring in empty containers.  

This is just one of many ways companies can use technology to even out the general “ups and downs” of using rail as a transportation mode. Technology also helps break-bulk shippers in space-constrained, landlocked areas ship products in a consistent and efficient manner. This is something that companies with small site footprints can’t afford to slip on.

For example, IntelliTrans works with a large plant in the Houston metro area that has limited space available rail cars. If the plant doesn’t get its loaded rail shipments out on time, or if it doesn’t identify switching issues or billing issues in real-time, the site can quickly run out of capacity, which can seriously impact throughput.  

To avoid these issues, the plant uses a combination of technologies – predictive analytics, BOL automation, transaction monitoring, railcar tracking, and a yard management app. All these tools combined help them keep up with inbound and outbound railcars, visualize yard activities, and effectively manage site capacity. It also paints a clear picture of exactly where all assets are in the yard at any given point to understand exactly how many loaded or empty assets are on hand. The combination of these integrated tools and dashboards enables more efficient site operations, reducing the possibility of disruptive events.  

3 Ways Technology Helps Companies Manage Transportation Network Risks

Here are three ways technology helps shippers mitigate risk in their transportation network:

1. Optimizing Your Fleet Size

A rail shipper that decide to lease or own railcars must plan on how many rail cars it needs to meet its demand forecast. However, this isn’t always as straightforward as planning for a steady, year-round consumption rate. For example, most fertilizer companies deal with huge demand swings during farming season needs to be able to understand and predict those ebbs and flows. Using rail management technologies and data analytics, these and other break-bulk shippers can more accurately predict railcar capacity needs often resulting in cost savings and railcar shortage events.

2. Silo Consumption Rates

Inventory visibility technology is also being installed inside of silos and other storage containers, where companies can learn in advance if order patterns are changing. If a customer’s usual consumption rate is half-a-silo per day, and if there’s been zero depletion of a certain silo, then the supplier can find out before unnecessarily sending out a truck to replenish that silo. This not only saves demurrage and “truck not used” charges, but it also helps in carbon footprint reduction efforts. 

3. Leveraging the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)

These are both hot topics right now and they’re both finding their way into more predictive analytics platforms. Because AI and ML are both very good at picking out patterns in data, they can often pinpoint issues much faster than a more traditional or manual approach would. “The real power of AI and ML are unlocked when you merge real-time human intelligence with event-based data to shorten the AI and ML learning curve,” says Cupp “This shortened learning curve allows shippers to identify and rapidly react to quickly changing events.”  


As you can see, the opportunities to leverage technology as a supply chain de-risking tool are vast and only increasing as the technology itself advances. From reduced inventory and logistics costs to minimized transportation delays to improved decision-making, predictive analytics provides a long list of benefits for busy break-bulk shippers that would rather focus on serving their customers than worrying about whether they have enough rail cars in the yard for their shipments.   

Learn more about how IntelliTrans transportation management solutions can help improve your business operations. Request a demo today!