RFID in the Railway Industry

By : Priyanka | February 21, 2020

RFID & Railway Industry

From one of the first deployments of RFID on rail cars in the mid-1980s to the inception of railroad standards for RFID in the 1990s, the widespread use of RFID on railways has grown rapidly in multiple applications.

Across countries such as South Africa, Finland, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and India, railways are becoming increasingly automate and smarter with the use of auto-ID. Benefits do not stop at companies owning railways or railcars, but apply to people and companies dependent on railways for their own and/or their goods to travel safely and efficiently.

Benefits from using RFID on railways:

1. Decreased Human Error

2. Decreased Logistical Delays

3. Decreased Quantity of Lost/Stolen Items

4. Decreased Fraud

5. Decreased Operating Costs

6. Increased Visibility

7. Increased Customer Satisfaction

8. Increased Customer Service

Railway Management Systems

Goods which travel by rail can be costly to manage. The cargo ranges from car parts, construction materials, and energy resources such as gasoline, coal, and compressed natural gas, to raw materials such as iron ore and grains. The cost of the items destroyed, damaged or stolen is hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

The freight is not only costly, but there are many moving parts involved, such as train schedules, track management, availability of rail cars, rail car and rail track repairs, ticketing, and cargo schedules. RFID was implemented as a way to identify railway cars in a unique way but has slowly spread to additional uses, establishing itself as an important railway management solution.

1. Rail Car Tracking

Tagging rail cars with RFID tags can serve a few different purposes – either to uniquely identify rail cars for rail car visibility, preventative maintenance, or any combination of the above.

Tagging each rail car is critical to the logistics of the cargo. Each shipping container or crate could be going to different states or countries so having that information associated with each rail car is essential to delivering cargo. Today, it is reported that over 95% of North American railcars are tagged with RFID technology for identification purposes.

One of the most common uses for RFID on railways is tracking the individual rail cars or wagons in order to give enhanced visibility into where the trains are on the railway at all times. By tagging rail cars and having read stations along the track at certain intervals – it takes the guesswork out of arrival and departure times for both freight and passenger trains. Readers can be set up at intervals so that they can correctly provide directionality and speed, allowing for the calculation of remaining time.

Vehicle service records are important to maintaining due to the major concerns associated with damaged or faulty rail cars. By tagging rail cars with RFID tags, rail operators can keep track of service records in order to schedule and perform maintenance before any issues occur. Each tag can be read at reading stations, and mileage can be recorded to a database that also keeps that car’s service records. 

2. Ticketing

Rail tickets are typically checked using a visual scan or a barcode, but, due to an uptick in fraud, RFID has been deployed as a way to counteract counterfeit tickets.

In 2006, China was one of the first countries to implement single-use, paper tickets with embedded HF RFID tags. Barcodes are very easily duplicated, and, when the country was seeing about 3 billion passengers per year, railways could have been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars from counterfeit ticketing each year.

Sweden is one of the countries that are at the forefront of the RFID technology wave. A Swedish rail company, SJ, isn’t just using RFID for Oyster cards and ticketing, but they are going the extra mile by offering to store passengers’ annual train card information on their implanted RFID tag. Only available to passengers that have a pre-existing RFID implant, now ticketing can be done with a scan of someone’s hand using HF, specifically, NFC RFID technology.

3. Asset Management

Many businesses using the railways for high-value resource transport choose to tag their freight or goods with RFID. For example, by putting RFID tags on every cargo container, suitcase, or barrel of oil, it minimizes the risk of errors and reduces the amount of labor time involved in identifying and distributing the cargo.

Independently tagging and tracking cargo is typically carried out by the shipping or receiving company of the items, but can also be used by the railway company as a temporary safety measure if the cargo has to change trains, or if there are more than one company’s goods on a railcar.


By adding visibility, operational efficiencies, and extreme accuracy – RFID lowers labor costs and enhances customer and employee satisfaction. All these additions lower the cost and diminish the risk of transportation via railways. 

The cost to tag each wagon or rail car is tag dependent on several factors, but generally is low, and, even with the one-time hardware infrastructure cost of reading stations throughout the track, the cost to implement an RFID solution is commonly less than the value of assets on one rail car.

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