As the transportation industry continues to focus on sustainability, rail freight continues to stand out.

The consulting firm IDC calls rail “the most energy efficient and least carbon intensive freight transportation mode.” Case in point: Rail makes up about 9% of freight activity, but it only accounts for 3% of energy use in the transportation sector.

But the rail industry isn’t resting on its laurels. Instead, the industry continues to embrace technological innovations designed to reduce its carbon footprint even further, improve safety, increase efficiency, prevent breakdowns, and keep cargo moving.

In this article, we’ll investigate some of the latest innovations in rail freight, including its foray into machine learning and predictive technology.

Let’s start with the ways the rail industry aims to reduce its carbon footprint.

Investigating Alternative Fuels for Rail Freight

Countries all over the world are looking into alternatives to diesel fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from trains and meet ambitious climate goals. Within the search, a few frontrunners have emerged:




In the European Union, 60% of the rail network is electrified, with 80% of traffic running on these lines—a significant step toward the EU’s goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050. In December 2023, Indian Railways completed 100% electrification of its system, in support of India‘s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2070. China, too, has adopted electrified rail, with 72% of its system electrified.


Although the United States accounts for about 25% of all global rail freight activity, it’s only electrified less than 1% of its rail network. Estimates suggest that freight diesel will continue to dominate in North America through 2050. While the owners of the U.S. rail network are not yet sold on electrified railways, they have investigated other alternatives, including battery and hydrogen locomotives.




Hydrogen rail projects are popping up all over the world. In Germany, Alstom’s hydrogen fuel cell train, the Coradia iLint, traveled 730 miles without stopping to refuel. In the German state of Bavaria, Siemens has also completed test runs of their Mireo Plus H hydrogen-powered train.


In Japan, Hitachi and Toyota are collaborating on test railway vehicles with hybrid systems leveraging hydrogen-powered fuel cells and storage batteries to power electric trains.


These hydrogen-powered trains are still in the testing phase—and the majority of tests involve passenger, rather than freight applications. However, as the feasibility of hydrogen technology becomes clearer, so will the possibilities for wider adoption.


Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)


The Illinois company CNGmotive has proposed a compressed natural gas (CNG) solution for rail freight, involving a composite fiberglass tank that would deliver a safe CNG solution for locomotives.


The application appeals to many in the rail industry, since diesel-powered locomotives could be retrofitted to run on natural gas, rather than replaced. Long-term adoption would require a significant infrastructure investment to support refueling. On the plus side, the reduction in GHG emissions would also be significant.


The industry is also exploring liquid natural gas (LNG) as a lower-emissions alternative to diesel. In both CNG and LNG applications, current models offer a dual-fuel option so the locomotive can burn both natural gas and diesel fuel.


With diesel alternatives either underway or in testing, the rail industry has put itself on a more sustainable pathway to reduce its already light carbon footprint.


Improving Safety with Positive Train Control

Like many other forms of freight transportation, train operation is subject to human error, which can result in accidents like train-to-train collisions and over-speed derailments.

To reduce the possibility of human-error accidents, Positive Train Control (PTC) systems have been implemented on all Class I PTC route miles. These sections of track see five million or more gross tons of annual traffic, as well as hazardous material transport and/or commuter rail transportation.


The PTC system leverages hundreds of thousands of components to determine the location, direction, and speed of trains to detect accidents before they happen. The systems then:

  1. Warn operators of potential problems
  2. Safely stop the train if the operator doesn’t react

PTC systems leverage GPS location reports, wired and wireless communication networks, trackside equipment, onboard systems, and traffic control centers with servers that all collect and analyze data to sound warnings of unsafe conditions.

To see exactly how Positive Train Control works, check out this explanation from the Association of American Railroads:

While Positive Train Control systems have significantly reduced fatalities associated with freight rail, it does have its limitations. It can’t prevent accidents resulting from track or equipment failure. For those challenges, railroad companies are looking to different solutions.


Anticipating Failure with Predictive Sensors

The catastrophic 2023 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio wasn’t a product of human error. Instead, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report cited equipment failure—an overheated wheel bearing and the disintegration of a rail car’s wheel set.   


An emerging innovation from Hum Industrial Technology may be able to prevent future similar derailments. Given that the East Palestine accident involved hazardous materials—including vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas—there’s considerable interest in a solution that can detect problems early.  

100,000 miles

distance in advance that the Hum Boomerang can detect bearing failures

The Hum Boomerang sensor offers live monitoring of railcar bearings, wheels, trucks, and tracks. By keeping tabs on factors like vibration, this technology can detect a catastrophic failure much earlier than hot box detectors, which monitor the temperature of bearings every 20 miles. In fact, Hum argues that their Boomerang can even predict bearing failures 100,000 miles in advance 

Although some argue that the technology is too expensive for widespread adoption, the magnitude of the East Palestine derailment has more arguing for preventative technology, like that developed by Hum.


Expanding Track Inspection Capabilities with Drones and Machine Learning

In addition to equipment failure, infrastructure failure can also cause incidents. A broken rail resulted in the derailment of a train hauling coal in Colorado, ultimately collapsing a bridge.


Although railroads have systems in place to monitor for broken rails, the system failed in this case, leading to the accident. Railroads also have inspection programs to catch infrastructure failure before it causes an accident. However, they’ve largely been a human-led activity, limited by manpower and the feasibility of reaching certain sections of track.


Today, the rail industry is looking to drones and machine learning to offer critical information about the health of their rail infrastructure:

  • Drones collect images, video, and LiDAR surveys, delivering high-quality data and offering easy access to track located in rough or steep terrain. Some companies, like BNSF Railway Co., are even using fully autonomous drones. They follow a programmed flight plan, monitored remotely by an operator and with the permission of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
  • Once all that data is collected, software like Ardenna’s Rail-Inspector® uses machine-learning algorithms to process it, assessing track and railbed infrastructure health and noting any anomalies.

In concert, these two pieces of technology have allowed railways to inspect tens of thousands of lines of track with much greater ease than a 100% human-led solution. The drones capture the data, and the software analyzes it, allowing leadership to make data-backed decisions regarding maintenance.


Ultimately, as more companies adopt similar technology, they can expect not only cost savings and greater efficiencies, but also increased safety for rail employees and the general public alike.

Battling Technology Risks with Technology

man on laptop cyber security

Sometimes, operational risks come from technology itself. Like other transportation companies, railroads face cybersecurity challenges, including ransomware attacks, data breaches, and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. In fact, the older technology and sheer size of their operations can make railroads a particularly compelling target for cybercriminals.


Companies like Cervello offer cybersecurity platforms for rail providers, designed to track behavior of all rail equipment, including operational technology (OT) and industrial control systems (ICS); IoT devices; signaling equipment; and rolling stock to identify threats before they become critical. The company’s Cervello Brain technology analyzes all the data it collects to identify patterns and anticipate threats.


Other companies like RazorSecure also use machine learning solutions to power constant analysis designed to stop intrusions in their tracks.


As cybercriminals become more and more sophisticated—and railroads continue to leverage connected technology to improve safety and efficiency—railroads will need to stay vigilant. Advancing cybersecurity technology, which can condense a significant amount of information into easy-to-understand dashboards and recommendations, will be a huge boon as railroads continue to secure their operating environments.


Keeping Rail Freight Moving Through Innovative Technology

Technological innovations are impacting rail operations in many different areas—sustainability, safety, and efficiency among them. Continued investment in these advances will only further the ultimate goal of rail freight providers—keeping cargo moving quickly, efficiently, and safely.


Thinking about adding rail to your freight mix? Our experts would be happy to help you analyze your transportation usage to uncover the most efficient, cost-effective solutions for moving your cargo. Schedule a complimentary consultation today.

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