Point of View

Expansion of rail freight transportation must go hand in hand with deployment of rail scanner systems

25 February 2022
By Kevin Davies, Global Director of Ports and Borders for Smiths Detection

Rail freight transport is expected to grow, alongside the projected growth in global trade, more than threefold to US$27 trillion in 2030.[1] Two growth factors for rail freight transport’s growth are China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – or Silk Road Economic Belt –  which includes transport corridors through landlocked Central Asia along the historical trade routes of the Western Regions, and the European Commission’s plans to boost international rail which were announced in 2021.[2]

Already we see remarkable rail-freight traffic growth on the Silk Road Economic Belt, with more trains and new destinations across Eurasian routes. This is partly a result of the pandemic and an increase in cross-border e-commerce. China-Europe freight trains became vital along the Belt and Road territories when COVID-19 disrupted global air and sea cargo lines.[3]

In February 2021, 1,048 China-Europe trains were dispatched, which translates as a 144% year-on-year (YOY) increase. The trains carried 100,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), up 159% YOY.[4] Alataw Pass, a major rail port in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, for instance, launched cross-border e-commerce in January 2020. Today, it is China’s busiest rail port. Guo San, director of the railway station’s operation and management office, said: “Now we have about 14 freight trains passing through the port every day, with over 110,000 parcels delivered daily on average”, their most enthusiastic online shoppers coming from France, Germany and the UK.[5]

The missing piece: security

With increasing rail connectivity across continents, ambitious government infrastructure projects, and freight volume increasing, where does security fit into the increased movement of goods? How do we ensure that our rail freight network supports safe trade?

Congestion (a recent issue in rail freight transport),[6] organized crime and trafficking are risks which could hinder rail freight network expansion and the increased use of rail transport. This is not to say that rail transport’s risks make it less secure than other forms of transport – like air or road – which are subject to threats of their own.

On the contrary, the organized nature of railways has the potential to make rail transport more secure, with the proper security solutions in place. For instance, railways often have standardized, uniform transit schedules and do not share their tracks with members of the public in the way that roads do. They also are not hindered by traffic and (except in extreme circumstances) weather. With the appropriate solutions established, such regular schedules can make it easier to anticipate risks and secure trade along railways and in freight.

Recent tech advancements

In rail transport, high-energy X-ray systems are most often used to screen rail freight and detect threats or anomalies. In recent years, advances in such systems’ X-ray source and linear accelerators (known as “linacs”, the component subsystems that deliver the X-ray beam) have enabled scanning at much higher speeds while improving image quality and the volume of data that can be captured.

This increased data availability translates into better user interface (UI) tools that, for instance, can enable users to pick out anomalies in 2D images more easily as well as creating a more seamless user experience. These performance improvements allow customs authorities to screen cargo at much higher speeds without compromising data acquisition. Because of the increased speed of these improved systems, it may now be possible to place high-energy screening systems – previously destined for low-traffic areas of the rail freight journey such as port entries – at areas with higher traffic further up (or down) the track, giving port authorities greater flexibility in how and where they screen. Intelligent automatic detection applications that use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can also make analysis of data faster and more reliable.

Key challenges in screening

A key challenge is that train scanners need to be customized for each unique rail environment – and there are many. This necessitates experienced teams on the ground with a strong collaborative spirit ready to study each environment and develop appropriate solutions.

For data, like image analysis, to be shared between authorities efficiently, centralized information sharing systems must be in place, such as Data Management Systems (DMS) which have already been deployed at traditional ports and borders. A DMS consists of a powerful and flexible server that stores and manages the data of inspected cargo and associated data relevant to that stream of commerce. It pools and distributes the dataset information according to local (rule-based) customs requirements and enables centralized image analysis for each connected scanning system via a remote pool of operators, or duplication at the point of inspection for local decision-making. It operates on a highly secured and dedicated IP network, allowing data from all scanning systems to be accessed safely anywhere over a locally provided ICT backbone.

Cybersecurity can also be achieved by deploying edge computing built on the latest containerized modular architecture (as opposed to the monolithic architecture previously used). This modular architecture provides system owners with greater flexibility when it is necessary to debug or change their requirements and functionality, making long-term maintenance easier and less risky.

Final considerations

Ultimately, when deploying security systems for rail freight transportation, customs administrations should take care to consider several elements:

  • The nature of the cargo: the volume, bulk, and density of the cargo in the stream of commerce transiting the line determines the power needed by the screening system. For example, typical containerized cargo requires 9 MeV linac-based systems to ensure inspection capability. A 6 MeV dual-energy system may suffice if the cargo is less dense.
  • Location of the screening system: authorities should consider the traffic of the location as well as the radiological protection requirements prescribed by international or local guidelines (compliance with “ICRP 103” – the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection – should always be required as a minimum).
  • Human resourcing in relation to the rail network: consideration of the volume of human resources that are both needed and available across the rail transportation system can assist in determining the degree of technological augmentation and automation. AI and ML can support streamlining processes and help reduce human error – identifying which areas of the rail system require the most support is crucial.
  • Centralized image processing facility capabilities: images and associated metadata can be transmitted off-site to a central facility and stored and analysed there in real time independently of the local site.

If we have learned anything from the deployment of such screening systems in the past, it is the importance of being flexible enough to account for the local concept of operations (CONOPS – a document that describes the characteristics of a proposed system from a user’s perspective) and to build in redundancy, particularly for data storage and retrieval. As the total cost of ownership (TCO) increasingly drives procurement decisions, it is also essential to ensure the commitment of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to improved software functionality and to upgrade options over time.

In the near and long term, we can expect to see a significant increase in international and regional rail freight. It is not a matter of when, but how infrastructure can be developed and technology implemented for better and more efficient security. This will play a vital role in the successful expansion of rail freight transportation and the growth of resilient supply chains.

More information


[1] https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/transportation-logistics/tl2030/infrastructure/pdf/tl2030_v2_transport-infrastructure.pdf

[3] https://www.dhlexpress.be/en/dhl-news/on-the-right-track-china-europe-rails-explosive-growth

[5] https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202102/1215687.shtml

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-27/shipping-container-rates-top-10-000-from-asia-to-europe

About the Author

Kevin Davies is the Global Director of Ports & Borders at Smiths Detection. He leads the deployment and execution of strategy, business development, and customer success for the Ports & Borders market with Smiths Detection. He also helms the introduction of new capabilities and solutions in line with Smiths Detection’s goal to provide security, peace of mind and freedom of movement upon which the world depends.