Tranz Rail shows glimpse of IT treasure

For those wondering why Melbourne-based Toll Holdings bought Tranz Rail, it may have had something to do with the cleverness of the people and technology hidden inside the transport company. It may even be that Toll plans to use its New Zealand arm as an IT testbed, if a glimpse of what’s ahead is any indication.

Tranz Rail group GM for IT Garry Collings notes that the subsidiary has 365 trucks as against Toll’s 16,000, so that probably wasn’t the compelling reason.

Collings, speaking at a lunch put on by CIO magazine (NZ) last week ostensibly about portals, demonstrated Tranz Rail’s vision of a real-time asset management system. This was in real real-time — the notebook projection of a live tracking system displayed exactly where moving trucks were on the roads of Auckland and Wellington.

Collings was quick to note that the company was only a few notches along a five-year, 13-step plan, which will involve live, secure tracking of all its trucks, trains, planes and ferries. Nevertheless, the system, presently titled EVS, suggests great promise. Permitted users can drill down to see how full trucks are, the temperature of refrigerated rigs and other details. A “black box” of inhouse-built software and hardware acts as a data wrangler for communications with vehicles carrying transponder units or ruggedised PDAs.

Knowing where everything is should both cut costs and save losses for Tranz Rail. Tracking goods currently occupies several people in company branches around the country.

The delay of leased containers on wharves for various reasons costs money, likewise does any mistake to do with refrigerated goods. Export meat comes with “huge rules”, says Collings.

The system is best based on exceptions — what goes wrong rather than what arrives on time. Executives will be provided with “digital dashboards” that enable simple visibility of relevant data and reports.

Collings limited the data transfer demands of the VPN-delivered demonstration. Even though the company has been talking to Vodafone for a couple of years about such a system, current data speeds are still “bloody slow”, he says. 3G telecommunications will have arrived when the project matures, and speed will not be a problem, he says. Craig Meek, who was involved in Virtual Spectator and of late in digital sign company OpenEye Displays, has played a role in developing software for the project.

On portals, Collings says the company’s move to that technology and thin client has had several benefits. The portal gave non-technical employees point and click access to applications and services, and the thin client infrastructure allowed more life out of existing gear, a speedy rollout and lower risk of data loss.

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