Rail freight catches up by taking EDI on board

Rail freight operator Freightliner has become the first company in its industry to offer its customers real- time container...

Rail freight operator Freightliner has become the first company in its industry to offer its customers real- time container status reports, after implementing an EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) based notification system.

EDI is widely used in the retail and consumer goods industry, although it is being superceded by XML as a communication language in many industries. But the rail freight industry has been slow to catch on to new technology, admitted Colin Thompson, IT executive at Freightliner.

"The reason no one has used EDI until now is that the industry has been very backward as a whole," he said. "We are using EDI now because our customers have requested it."

Freightliner's customers have shown no desire to use XML as yet, Thompson said. But, he added, the EDI system, based on software from supplier WRQ, has an XML portion that will allow the company to use the newer language when required.

Before Freightliner implemented EDI, staff made container-specific enquiries on a regular basis to get updated location information. This was a time-consuming and expensive process that only supplied the customer with dated information, Thompson said.

Customers can now get a complete overview of container status changes - for example, arrival or departure from the port or terminal - via an EDI message that is generated on the host system and e-mailed to them at predefined intervals, he said.

"It improves our customer service, particularly as we are offering something our opposition cannot," he said. "It also improves company honesty because everything is in real-time and not being manually updated." The EDI system has also allowed Freightliner to exploit existing data on its legacy systems, without having to undertake a massive integration project, Thompson said.

"It is a good tool for digging data on old systems," he added. "Many in the industry have large mainframes that are difficult to change and EDI is in some ways a 'quick win' way of doing so."

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