Railinc Tracks Blog

Railinc tracks are everywhere although you don't always see them. The Railinc Tracks blog reveals them one at a time and shows you how we help to keep railroads, railcars and rail shipments moving across America. The blog is staffed by the Railinc Corporate Communication team and will give you news and insights about our company, our people and our products.

Railinc Reports Detail Growth of Fleets

Railinc’s Umler system is a rich industry resource that contains data on more than 2 million pieces of rail equipment and includes details such as railcar dimensions, capacities and weight, and locomotive horsepower and fuel capacity. Analysis of these data can provide powerful insights into the size and makeup of the North American railcar and locomotive fleets.

Since 2010, Railinc Senior Analyst Dr. David Humphrey, right, has used Umler data to create demographic profiles of the railcar and locomotive fleets for an annual presentation at the Rail Equipment Finance Conference in La Quinta, Calif. Railinc representatives have appeared at the conference since 1999.

“This year, as always, attendees of the Rail Equipment Finance Conference appreciated David Humphrey’s presentations on the state of the railcar and locomotive fleets,” said David Nahass, president of Railroad Financial Corporation, which holds the conference. “At REF, senior executives from companies throughout the rail finance industry are joined by numerous financial and rail industry analysts to hear David speak. They know that Railinc is a trusted data source. David’s presentations help set the tone for thoughtful discussions and a great conference.”

About 400 people attended the conference in March, including representatives from railcar lessors and lessees, banks, shippers, Class I railroads, short line railroads and finance companies.

In the Q&A below, Humphrey discusses the railcar and locomotive fleets, what’s new in this year’s railcar review, and overall trends for railcars and locomotives. Detailed information about the fleets, including full-color charts, is included in the 2017 North American Freight Railcar Review and the 2017 North American Locomotive Review, both available via free download here.

What types of railcars are in the revenue-earning fleet?
The revenue-earning fleet, a subset of the North American rail fleet, is made up of six subfleets: hoppers, covered hoppers, gondolas, flat cars, tank cars and box cars. These cars can be used in interchange service and can be associated with an interline waybill. The revenue-earning fleet doesn’t include locomotives, intermodal trailers and containers, maintenance-of-way equipment and end-of-train devices.

What’s new in this year’s railcar review?
In past years, the railcar review presented data on car types grouped by their gross rail load (GRL) capacity. This year’s report presents car types by the kinds of commodities they carry, which provides a more nuanced view. This lets us focus on the most commonly shipped commodities for the most popular car types. For example, while covered hoppers—which grew the most of all the car types in 2016—carry grain, sand, plastic pellets, and other commodities, the types of covered hoppers that transport those commodities have different characteristics. The covered hopper that typically carries sand is going to be smaller than the covered hopper that carries corn or soybeans.

How do people use the data you present?
My presentation is one of the first on the Rail Equipment Finance Conference agenda, and the information serves as an overview for all of the freight car-related topics covered in the first two days. Railinc and its Umler Equipment Index are known as a definitive source of quality data on the status of the North American railcar fleet. The conference has a focus on the financial aspects of buying, selling, leasing and building freight cars and locomotives, which means the data we present are particularly relevant to the attendees and the companies they represent.

What were the major trends for the revenue-earning fleet?
The revenue-earning fleet grew by 1.4 percent in 2016, driven by increases in the covered hopper and tank car populations. The hopper car type contracted for the seventh year in a row, and the gondola population decreased for the fourth straight year. For the first time in years, the number of box cars held steady from the previous year. The fleet continues to grow younger, with the average age of the fleet declining again in 2016. The trend of GRL 286 cars leading among additions to the revenue-earning fleet continued in 2016.

What were the trends for locomotives?
Locomotives continue to join the fleet at a steady rate: 2016 was the seventh consecutive year of growth for the fleet. The average and median ages for locomotives both increased in 2016. Also, high-horsepower, AC locomotives with six axles and high fuel capacity continue to make up the majority of new additions to the fleet.

The 2017 North American Freight Railcar Review and the 2017 North American Locomotive Review are available to download for free, as are past reports. Railinc also provides quarterly updates on the revenue-earning fleet in its Umler Equipment Index.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc Wins Tech Award for Rail Industry Service

Railinc has been recognized as the 2016 Industry-Driven Company of the Year at the NC Tech Awards, the largest and most prestigious statewide technology awards program. Given annually by the North Carolina Technology Association (NCTA), the awards honor the companies and individuals who represent the best and brightest in technology and business in North Carolina.

This is the second time Railinc has been named Industry-Driven Company of the Year. The award recognizes companies that have provided a product or service to a specific industry and that have made a notable impact to the betterment of that industry.

“North Carolina is known for its world-class technology community, and it’s an honor for Railinc to earn this recognition,” said Allen West, Railinc president and CEO. “The award is a real tribute to our great employees and their commitment to serving the freight rail industry through our innovative technology solutions.”

Railinc’s nomination highlighted the company’s work on the AskRail mobile application and its work to support freight rail operations in the Chicago Terminal, the busiest rail terminal in North America.

“Since 1995, the NC Tech Awards has honored excellence and innovation throughout North Carolina, representing the best and brightest,” said Brooks Raiford, president and CEO of NCTA. “As a winner, Railinc has distinguished itself as a peer-leader, and we are proud to recognize them as a 2016 NC Tech Awards winner.”

You can see the complete list of award winners here. Winners were recognized at NCTA’s annual awards gala on November 10 at the Raleigh Convention Center.

—Railinc Corporate Communications


Found on a Sticky Note

A sticky note detailing a user story from a Flex-to-AngularJS migration.

The sticky notes you find around Railinc tell stories about our culture and how we develop our products; how we learn from and work with our customers; and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. A recurring feature on the Railinc Tracks blog, Found on a Sticky Note takes a look at an individual sticky note and provides insights into who we are and what we do.

One of Railinc’s biggest challenges is managing technology refresh. Our people work hard to stay in front of technology changes so we can adopt new tools and development approaches as our customers’ needs shift.

Sometimes that means we leave behind old technologies.

For example, Railinc completed its four-year mainframe migration project in 2015, moving the company from an expensive and rigid technology approach to a less costly, broader and more flexible midrange solution. How is that helping? By enabling us to grow applications and systems and to handle the ever-increasing amount of railroad data we manage.

Even more technology changes are under way. Right now, Railinc is migrating its RailSight applicationsDemand Trace, Track and Trace, and Monitor—from Flex to the open-source, HTML- and JavaScript-based AngularJS framework. Already, Railinc has transitioned nearly two dozen applications to AngularJS, including the Damaged and Defective Car Tracking system, Clear Path, and Car Accounting Self-Service, and expects to complete the RailSight migration in early 2017.

The move from Flex will enhance the quality of RailSight applications, support changes to how customers access and use RailSight, and lower the cost to serve customers, said Charles Paye, director of commercial products.

“It lays a foundation for future growth and changes in RailSight,” Paye said.

Demand Trace Changes Support Query Capabilities, Improved Functionality

With the move from Flex to AngularJS, Railinc is making application changes—like the one in the sticky note above—that can have a real impact on how customers work. The note reads:

RS Demand Trace Flex Migration: Equipment Formatting Validation

Description: As a Demand Trace User, I’m unable to enter invalid equipment formats when running a trace.

About: This keeps users from searching invalid formats that won’t produce any trace results.


  1. Only alphanumeric entries allowed to be submitted in equipment field.
  2. Equipment can be separated by comma, space, or page break (enter)
  3. User can copy/paste using mouse clicks.
  4. User can copy/paste using keyboard shortcuts

Part of the RailSight suite of applications, Demand Trace gives users the ability to access data through the complete lifecycle of shipments and equipment. Instead of subscribing to a feed of data, a Demand Trace user can keep tabs on a shipment by manually submitting or scheduling a query whenever they want.

“It’s really data on demand,” said William Holt, a business analyst who works on Demand Trace. “You’re searching the equipment you want to find, when you want to search it, and you pay for those queries.”

To submit one of these queries, a user enters a series of alphanumeric characters—two to four letters and one to six numbers—associated with a particular piece of rail equipment. Demand Trace returns data on shipment events, including location and scheduled arrival and departure times.

The move to AngularJS allows for more separation of the UI on the back end. You can make changes to the front end, improving the way users interact with the app, without having to change the application itself.


With the newly migrated Demand Trace, the development team set up restrictions for queries. Without the restrictions, users could input any alphanumeric combination—one letter and seven numbers, for example—and run a trace no matter whether the rail equipment ID format was valid. Instead, as soon as a customer enters an invalid character, an error message appears and the user cannot submit the search, preventing “bad queries” on cars that may not exist and any unnecessary charges.

Developers also made it easier to copy and paste using keyboard shortcuts and the mouse. This makes it easier for users to move large amounts of data from an application like Excel to the query box in Demand Trace so they can get their work done more efficiently.

“The move to AngularJS allows for more separation of the UI on the back end,” Paye said. “You can make changes like these to the front end of the app, improving the way users interact with the app, without having to change the application itself.”

Migration Supports Richer Apps, Better User Experience

Railinc employees work together during an Agile training session.There are reasons beyond flexibility to make the move to AngularJS.

“Chrome and other browsers aren’t supporting Flex,” said Prabhu Kompella, a project development manager. “It’s becoming obsolete.”

The ubiquity of mobile devices makes the move to AngularJS all the more necessary. While Flex supports interactivity, it is not supported by the two most common mobile operating systems—iOS and Android—and doesn’t enable responsive web design, which automatically adapts a web page to the type of device a customer is using.

Not only are applications on the AngularJS platform mobile friendly, they’re easier to build and update.

“The level of productivity for developers is better,” said Ryan Nguyen, a user interface architect. “It cuts down on the development time.”

There is also more opportunity to automate testing, which speeds the development process. The platform also supports changes that will improve the overall user experience, bringing applications in line with what customers are used to on non-Flex web pages.

“What we’ll end up with is a richer application for users,” Paye said. “That helps us deliver a better user experience.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Employees Ace Volleyball Tourneys, Boost Charities

The Railinc Railspikers volleyball team celebrates after winning a tournament.

Railinc's culture of wellness is strong, and there are many ways to keep active here, from running on the greenway to on-site boot camps to yoga. Some people swim or cycle, and others get together for team sports like softball, ultimate and cricket.

For the last five or six years, a group of Railinc employees has made the short trek to the sand volleyball courts at North Cary Park every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday to play at lunchtime. It’s popular, sometimes attracting enough employees to have two games going simultaneously. And it has spawned a team—the Railspikers—that regularly participates in (and wins) local volleyball tournaments.

“We started playing at lunch for fun,” said Murali Bobba, a senior database administrator who organized the Railspikers team. “We’ve had a lot of people join us, some who play in leagues. We thought starting the team would give us the opportunity to play in games that were more focused on competition.”

The other members of the Railspikers are Raj Mallarapu, Srikanth Maddukuri, Sandeep Pailla, Vishnu Kandi and Nagi Guntaka.

On September 24, the Railspikers, along with a few players from outside the company, won the 2016 Sewa International charity six-on-six tournament, beating out 26 other teams. It’s just their most recent trophy. By participating, the Railspikers helped raise money for Sewa’s “Sponsor a Child” program and a Mumbai foundation that helps children who live on the streets.

You can see photos from the Sewa tournament on Facebook.

And two weeks before that, the Railspikers, won the Triangle Area Telugu Association six-on-six tournament. In June, they outplayed eight other teams to win the inaugural YHC Sand Volleyball Tournament. Proceeds from that tournament went to the nonprofit YourHelpCounts Foundation, which used the funds to donate 100 solar study lights to rural schools in India.

Last year, they won six-on-six sand volleyball tournaments in Cary held by Sewa, the Triangle Area Telugu Assocation and the Greater Carolina Kerala Association.

The Railspikers also participate in the Town of Cary’s adult indoor volleyball league.

The team’s success has inspired a second group of Railinc employees to start a team—RailHulk—and to compete in the same indoor volleyball league as the Railspikers. RailHulk team members are Ramesh Veerappan, Ganesh Subramanian, Jeff Yusiewicz, Chip Summey, Brian Childs, Murali Bobba, Murali Muthyam and Nanda Navarathnam.

“With the heavy demands of work, sometimes we don’t have the opportunity to build the rapport and camaraderie that can benefit teams,” said Raj Mallarapu, a senior software engineer and member of the Railspikers. “Meeting outside of work like this provides the opportunity, helping us and the company.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Rail Fleet Bright Spot: Boxcars Shine in Q2

A train with boxcars rumbles down the tracks.

Followers of the rail industry have likely come across discussions recently about the make-up of the boxcar fleet in North America and how it serves a broad customer base. The total count of boxcars in the North American fleet was approximately 109,000 at the end of 2015. Those boxcars, however, can be divided into two distinct categories that are relevant for equipment owners and for shippers. There is the older, smaller fleet of boxcars and there is the newer, larger fleet of boxcars.

There are about 74,000 older, smaller boxcars, which share important characteristics. Most of these boxcars—50,000 of them—are older (ages 35 years and above), smaller (about 50 feet in length) and limited to carrying lighter weights (gross rail load of 220,000 or 263,000 pounds).

Then there’s the other portion of the boxcar fleet.

There are about 35,000 newer, larger boxcars, which also share important characteristics. Most of these boxcars— 25,000 of them—are newer (less than 25 years of age), larger (typically about 60 feet in length), and capable of carrying heavier weights (gross rail load of 286,000 pounds).

"Missing Decade" Will Shape Boxcar Retirement Trends

Railinc Sr. Analyst David Humphrey, center,
reviews rail fleet data with his colleagues.

In between these two portions of the boxcar fleet is something of a missing decade. If we examine just boxcars that have ages from 24 years to 32 years, that spans a nine-year window—roughly a decade.

Within that period, there are fewer than 2,000 boxcars in the North American fleet, and all of those are the older, smaller boxcars. That is, the very few boxcars in that nine-year age group represent the last and youngest of previous generation of boxcars that were added to the fleet two or three decades ago. The outcome: There will be small boxcars retiring from the fleet in the next 15 years, followed by about 10 years with very few boxcars retiring, before the retirement of large boxcars begins in large quantities in about 25 years.

These differences in physical characteristics between the older, smaller boxcars and the newer, larger boxcars can be very important. Some shippers are limited by weight in how much lading can be placed in a boxcar. (Think about shipping gold bars.) They reach the weight limit on the boxcar before reaching the limit on cubic capacity.

Other shippers are limited by cubic capacity in how much lading can be placed in a boxcar. (Think about shipping chicken feathers.) They reach the interior space limit on the boxcar before reaching the weight limit.

But whether the shipper reaches the weight or the cubic-capacity limit first, those older, smaller boxcars consistently carry less lading than the newer, larger boxcars. And while older, smaller boxcars are retiring from the fleet, the rate of addition of newer, larger boxcars has been such that the overall capacity of the boxcars fleet has decreased significantly in recent years.

Second Quarter Boxcar Additions Outpaced 2014, 2015 Combined

There is, however, some indication that a change is potentially upon us.

A few hundred new boxcars have been added to the fleet this year. In fact, more new boxcars were added during the second quarter of 2016 than were added in all of 2014 and 2015 combined. And the new boxcars that are being added are typically 60 feet in length with a gross rail load of 286,000 pounds.

While it is too soon to call this a trend, it is something of a bright spot in an otherwise challenging year. It certainly warrants monitoring in the upcoming months, even if you’re not shipping gold bars or chicken feathers.

—David Humphrey Ph.D.

David Humphrey Ph.D. is a data scientist and senior analyst at Railinc. Each year, at the Rail Equipment Finance Conference, he presents detailed analyses of demographic data on the North American railcar and locomotive fleets. Read a Q&A with Humphrey and download his 2016 railcar and locomotive fleet reports for free.