| By Seth Bodnar

This essay is part of our Big Questions series.

A snapshot of Asia’s rail landscape reveals the need for advancement is great. China, for example, moved nearly three trillion ton-kilometers of freight by rail in 2013 – more than any other major country – and moves an average 2.5 trillion ton-kilometers of goods by rail each year – elements vital to the economy, like consumer goods, agriculture products, cars, coal, oil chemicals, and lumber. With such an important role in driving the supply chain – and ultimately, the economy – along with a one trillion dollar plan to rebuild Eurasia’s massive trade network, the need for efficient rail has never been greater.

Similarly, the U.S. rail network faces its own share of fierce challenges, with 500,000 delays a year and one of every four trains on the rails experiencing unplanned downtime.

So, what’s the solution to this worldwide need for new possibilities in rail? Leverage the power of edge computing to unlock game-changing potential and logistical brilliance for rail.

GE Transportation is leading the way, driving greater efficiency and productivity with intelligent digital solutions across its integrated suite of software. It starts with the brain of the train – GoLINC, a mobile, eight-terabyte data center inside the locomotive that ensures information – whether it’s data or high-resolution video – gets where it needs to go.

GoLINC is like putting an iPhone in the pocket of a locomotive. It’s the platform on which GE – and others – can write applications to help a train perform better and to help the entire system perform more effectively. It’s a pioneering approach to collecting, processing and enacting data across the vast rail ecosystem.

With GoLINC, train crews can detect and respond instantly to issues affecting the rail system, helping avoid delays and chokeholds across the network. The suite of solutions that integrate with GoLINC open a world of endless possibilities and improved outcomes for railroads, too.

For example, Trip Optimizer is a smart, automated cruise control system that ingests data about the train’s route and load, then automatically drives the train in the most fuel-efficient manner. On average, it generates 10 percent fuel savings and has helped railroads save more than 100 million gallons of diesel fuel, as well as surpassed a record 175 million miles in auto control mode.

Or, consider Movement Planner, a traffic control system that uses advanced algorithms to maximize the capacity of a rail network and help railroads move freight faster for less cost. When two trains approach a point in the rail network, one must pull off and wait while the other train passes. Movement Planner detects potential meet/pass conflicts – and considers other factors, such as train schedules, traffic-control systems, and train movements – to optimize routes and reduce delays.

And this is just the beginning. With GoLINC as the control center, GE and its partners can continue to evolve the capabilities of rail. Today, trains can become smart mobile data centers that can gather data within the rail ecosystem. However, the future potential for intermodal communication and data sharing could revolutionize the efficiency of the entire global supply chain – from ship to train to truck and beyond – meaning the goods that businesses and consumers need to thrive, arrive on time more often.

With GE’s commitment to continue uncovering bleeding-edge technological advances, the possibilities are endless. What’s certain is that the next century of freight rail, and intermodal freight transportation, will be driven by data and the entry point solutions that serve as the brains of it all.

Seth Bodnar is Chief Digital Officer at GE Transportation.