Railroad Operations

Ultimate Guide to Rail Shipment Management: Part 3 – Railcar ETA to Destination

Rail Shipment

Railroad Performance Metrics

Our previous articles covered the core operating metrics of the railroad’s report, showing us how train speed and yard dwell are helpful indicators rail shippers can use to measure the health of the rail network. These metrics can highlight problem areas also, but they do not help shippers manage their shipments to reach their destination on time.


Missed the previous articles? Go to Part One of our series to read from the beginning

Check out the first article in our series where we discuss railroad operating performance, from trip plan compliance, how rail shipment ETAs are calculated and how rail shippers can use these metrics to improve their rail network.

Trip Plan vs ETA

Some class 1s created Trip Plans to predict shipment arrival to destination (or delivery to the next railroad in the route), but Trip Plan alone does not tell rail shippers when the railcar will arrive. Most rail shipments cross multiple railroads to reach the final destination, yet Trip Plans are unique to each railroad. The other challenge is that Trip Plans only predict availability at the destination, not the actual last-mile delivery to the customer. 

As a result of these “no man’s land” zones in transit, a shipment can be 100% on-time by the railroad standards but arrive more than 50% delayed to the sum of the original Trip Plans. How can this occur? 

The infographic below shows how a shipment can be delayed at multiple transit points.  

Railroad Operations

“Scenarios like this are more common than we may realize. Rail shipments “go dark” at different points in the supply chain every day.” 

Typical scenarios include handoffs between class 1s when the railcar is not “on the clock” for either railroad, short lines with no visibility to in-transit updates, and the first mile/last mile where the railroad has stopped the clock. However, the receiver is still waiting for the shipment to arrive. 

Rail Shipments Need End-to-End Predictive ETAs

A shipment ETA is different from a Trip Plan: a rail shipment ETA is calculated when the car is billed and released to the railroad and predicts arrival to the final destination. Rail shipment ETAs can be recalculated at each in-transit location as the railcar passes by trackside AEI readers. This helps the ETA become more accurate as the car gets closer to the destination. 

Features of rail shipment ETAs that shippers should also look for include: 

  • Logic to recalculate the ETA when the railcar is dwelling, whether at a yard or in transit
  • Logic to recalculate the ETA when a railcar is reported wrong order or on hold by the railroad
  • Logic to incorporate a day of week service variations in the calculation
  • A data model based on historical operations data, as opposed to railway transit estimates
  • Automated intelligence that continuously cleans and improves the data model – for example, it should remove outliers and adjust to trends in performance, seasonality, and location or customer-specific dwell

Rail ETAs Enabling End Customer Success

ETAs are no longer optional; freight customers expect their business life to mirror their personal experience more closely. If they can know up to the minute when a $10 item from Amazon will arrive, why don’t they know where $10,000 worth of industrial goods is, never mind what day it might arrive? 

Logistics is now a competitive advantage; if you consistently predict when products will arrive at receivers, they are more likely to remain loyal customers and more likely to pay a premium. 63% of buyers in a recent supply chain study found that transparency in transit was the top item on their wish list.

Visibility can be time-consuming for the logistics team without the right tools; even if shippers attempt to build a buffer around railroad trip plans, logging into each railroad’s system to answer a simple customer ETA request is not the best use of the rail traffic coordinator’s time. 

A Better Option for Shippers is to Consolidate Information Across All Railroads in a Central Railcar Tracking System

Some of these systems have advanced ETA algorithms built-in, including ICL’s RSVP rail tracking system. 

Using RSVP, rail logistics managers can set up automated reports emailed to the customer directly, containing each shipment’s ETA and current location in transit. The reports can be customized for each receiver’s preferred content, layout, and frequency.

This is a win-win solution: shippers who automate the communication of ETAs to the customer can focus their time on higher-value activities while improving their customers’ experience. 

Software solutions like RSVP can also help shippers optimize their rail assets – receivers who have automated ETA reports can plan unloading schedules more effectively, ultimately reducing the cycle time of the railcar. 

Improved rail ETAs and better visibility to shipments in transit are some of the benefits ICL’s customers experience using our software.

Contact our sales team to learn more or request a no-obligation demo.