Integration Tool Gets Railroad on the Right Track

To better manage and share information among business partners and customers, Freightliner makes tracks to a web-based collaborative and integrated IT network.

While companies race to streamline operations and communicate with customers and business partners on a standard platform, many are still stranded with outdated communication networks. As a result, core business processes and critical information are locked up in legacy applications that predate Internet-era integration.

“These companies are stuck with traditional IT infrastructures,” notes Ron Grevink, market manager, Verastream, WRQ, a Seattle-based software solutions developer. “The question is how do you open up this antiquated infrastructure to integrate information with web-based interfaces?”

This question is especially relevant in Britain’s rail freight industry, given the glacial-like progress carriers have made toward implementing innovative communication technologies. But change is on the horizon. Less expensive and more flexible integration tools are thawing resistance to IT investment and once seemingly impassible infrastructure gaps are now manageable.

Moreover, urban congestion, escalating fuel costs, and increasing road tolls are pushing more freight to rail. In return for this new business, shippers are demanding better customer service from their rail partners.

Infrastructure disconnects were the crux of the problem confronting Freightliner, a London-based intermodal company, when one of its customers requested better container visibility earlier this year. The sheer size of Freightliner’s business added to the challenge. The carrier operates more than 70 trains daily across a network of eight privately owned and leased terminals. As the second-largest railroad operating in Britain, transporting 600,000 maritime containers a year, Freightliner also operates a fleet of trucks to provide local collection and delivery from railhead.

Towing the FreightLine

At the time of its customer’s request, Freightliner was fielding more than 2,000 shipment status inquiries a day. To fulfill these requests, it was tracking containers using tried and true manual processes—making phone calls and sifting through faxes. Additional variance among customer demands made tracking shipments even more time consuming and expensive, ultimately leaving customers with dated and unactionable information.

“Many of our customers had Freightliner staff based on their premises and tracking was obtained through them in as timely a manner as the customer requested,” says Colin Thompson, IT executive for Freightliner. “The process was standardized even though customer requirements differed widely.”

Freightliner perceived the challenge of creating a more collaborative and integrated IT network as an opportunity to grow its business in two ways: first, to enhance customer service; and second, to optimize its back-office operations.

“The impetus to provide real-time visibility was customer-driven,” says Thompson. “But there was also a likelihood that this initiative could provide efficiencies internally, as our contract managers and terminal staff were sending the information on request from the customers through fax and email.

“It is a sign of the times. Supply chains are looking for visibility and monitoring of transactions as they move away from a linear linkage to a web-centric approach,” he says.

To better manage and share critical information, Freightliner selected software developer WRQ, to help integrate its core back-office systems with customer applications.

Meeting the Challenge

WRQ was well prepared to meet the challenges facing Freightliner. With more than 26,000 customers representing six million users in 51 countries worldwide, WRQ helps companies access and integrate information to transform the way they do business. Freightliner’s circumstance was no different.

“There has been a shift from the traditional high-end, operations-oriented mode to a more service-oriented mode” among today’s businesses, says Grevink. “In the past, transportation companies competed on pricing and margins. Today they have to compete on service levels.”

Toward this goal, WRQ helped Freightliner create a platform from which to offer customers real-time status reporting.

“With WRQ’s guidance, we were able to quickly and cost-effectively enhance our level of service,” says Thompson. “Although we initially geared the project toward the needs of one particular customer, WRQ proactively suggested ideas to extend the solution to incorporate others.”

Staying the Course with Verastream

WRQ’s Verastream software allows companies to generate web pages automatically from legacy functions, using existing business logic and data, without rewriting host code.

In Freightliner’s case, WRQ Verastream Host Integrator retrieves container status information from the mainframe application in a non-intrusive way. WRQ Integration Broker then extracts the data, packages it into an EDI message, and sends e-mail alerts to customers at predefined intervals.

“It allows us to quickly integrate legacy systems without altering or moving the data and logic, providing a quick time to market,” says Thompson.

Aside from providing better visibility and communication for Freightliner’s customers—and helping the carrier transition to the web, cut costs, and tap the potential of its legacy systems—Verastream is flexible and scalable. For a company with immediate short-term concerns, but an unclear long-term strategy, flexibility was a necessary component.

“WRQ offers reusable components and services,” says Grevink. “You may have a challenge to meet today, but what about tomorrow? What happens if your business changes—do you look for another vendor?”

With Verastream, users can create a high level of reusability so that they can build a flexible environment that can respond to changing needs. “This allows businesses such as Freightliner to start with a small investment and grow it as needed,” says Grevink.

“For rail tracking, Verastream’s infrastructure and signalling provides location details on trains as they pass relevant points,” says Thompson. “So a train’s location is reported approximately every 10 to 15 minutes.”

These are the current tracking requirements, but it’s not hard to imagine that these parameters will change—to a point when, ideally, there won’t be any parameters.

Visibility Gives Competitive Edge

Until now, economies of scale made shipping via truck more efficient than rail in Britain. “Journey distance is shorter in the UK,” notes Thompson, “Many routes are too short to make rail transportation economical.” But congestion and higher fuel expenditures are mitigating these efficiencies and carriers that offer complete container movement visibility will be at an advantage.

The visibility Verastream creates “provides us with a competitive advantage over many road haulers that are unable to provide these services currently,” notes Thompson.

With its current EDI-generated e-mail alerts, Freightliner has only tipped the iceberg in fulfilling a complete web-based interface. “We believe shipment status requirements should be web-based to allow self service by our customers,” Thompson says.

Grevink shares similar optimism. “Nothing stops Freightliner, at the moment, from changing the way it provides information—for instance, via a web-based platform,” he observes.

Judging from recent history, Freightliner will likely pull out all the stops to better serve its customers’ needs.