RFID & Railways


Beginning in the 1980’s with RFID’s expansion into vehicle identification and tolling, auto-identification of vehicles and assets became the sole focus of certain sectors in the transportation industry. The idea that vehicles can be identified not only from a greater distance than with barcodes, but also traveling at high speeds, seemed to be the golden ticket for the railroad industry. From one of the first deployments of RFID on rail cars in the mid-1980’s, to the inception of railroad standards for RFID in the 1990’s, the widespread use of RFID on railways has grown rapidly in multiple applications.

Across the world, in countries like Finland, Sweden, South Africa, Germany, the United States, and India for example, railways are becoming increasingly streamlined and smarter with the use of auto-ID. Benefits do not stop at companies that own railways or rail cars, but extend to people and companies that rely on railways for safe and efficient travel for themselves and/or their goods and supplies.

Here are a few common benefits from using RFID on railways:

  • Increased Customer Service
  • Increased Visibility
  • Increased Customer Satisfaction
  • Decreased Operating Costs
  • Decreased Human Error
  • Decreased Quantity of Lost/Stolen Items
  • Decreased Fraud
  • Decreased Logistical Delays

Because of the widespread improvements observed after implementing RFID or IoT (Internet of Things) into the logistics industry (specifically, railways), the market for Railway Management Systems using RFID is estimated to be valued at $5 billion dollars by the end of 2022. Reports also mention that the growing rate of RFID implementation in the U.S. and Canada in the railway sector will lead to North America growing to dominate the Railway Management System market in terms of revenue.

Railway Management Systems

Managing goods that travel via railroads can be expensive. Cargo ranges from car parts, building materials, and energy resources such as oil, coal, and compressed natural gas, to raw materials like iron ore and grains. The cost of lost, damaged, or stolen goods is hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Not only is the cargo expensive, but there are a lot of moving parts involved, such as train scheduling, track management, rail car availability, rail car and track maintenance, ticketing, and cargo scheduling. RFID was introduced as a way to uniquely identify rail cars but has slowly spread to additional applications establishing itself as an effective solution for Railway Management.

Rail Car/Wagon 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. Below is an overview of each type.


In North America, the Association of American Railroads ( AAR) decided that all rail cars should be able to be uniquely identified from other cars on the same train or in the same rail yard. Four different identification methods were introduced, but after thorough testing, RFID prevailed and became the AEI (Automatic Equipment Identification) standard across North America. 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 calculation of remaining time.

These times can be posted for passengers or given to companies that are transporting high-value goods in order to provide a near real-time tracking view for security purposes. Additional information can also be reported to these companies, such as railway number, train number, wagon number, and which way the wagon is facing for removing assets.

Preventative Maintenance with UHF RFID

Vehicle service records are important to maintain 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 read stations, and mileage can be recorded to a database that also keeps that car’s service records. It is less expensive to take cars off the line for regular maintenance, than to wait for the car to have a major issue that could keep it out of service for days or weeks depending on part availability.

Keeping accurate mileage and service records can also save money by establishing a servicing timeline for each car so that none have parts replaced or refurbished before the recommended time/mileage.

Asset Management

In addition to railways tagging their rail cars, some companies that use railways for the transportation of high-value resources choose to tag their cargo or goods with RFID. By placing RFID tags on each cargo container, crate, or oil barrel, for example, it minimizes the risk of mistakes and lowers the amount of labor time involved in identifying and distributing the cargo.

Independently tagging and tracking cargo is typically implemented by the company sending or receiving the materials, but can also be used as a temporary security measure by the railway company if cargo needs to change trains, or if there is more than one company’s goods on a rail car.

Vehicle Availability Planning

Freight train operators schedule cargo moving across the country weeks or months in advance. In order to do that, they need a management system that gives them visibility into current train schedules, number of rail cars scheduled to run, number of rail cars available in the yard, as well as the timelines given to them by the shipping and receiving companies.

The process can be mostly automated when each rail car is tagged with an RFID tag which saves time finding the right car as well as uploading the information into an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. When the correct car is scanned, its information can be uploaded not only into its own scheduling file, but into the schedule for the train it is going to, and information can be put in that file denoting which assets will be loaded on the car.


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 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.

Encrypting the embedded HF tags eliminates counterfeiting due of the complexity of the encryption. Many countries have taken this idea and, not only implemented it into single-use tickets, but also into rail cards that can be used repeatedly, such as Oyster cards.

Sweden is one the countries that is on 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.

How has RFID Changed this Industry?

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 ranges below $20, 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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To read more about Railways and RFID, take a look at Jadak's whitepaper: " How RFID can Transform the Rail Industry"

To learn more about other types of RFID applications, check out the links below!