Friday, March 9, 2018

ACI Labels

In the Sixties, railways began adopting electronic data management and automation to manage car fleets and serve shippers more efficiently and at less cost to:
  • provide rapid location of specific car types to meet traffic needs 
  • enable faster and more accurate transmission of information
  • exchange up-to-the-minute records of car interchange between railroads
  • lower per-diem costs
  • reduce labour costs of car checkers and clerks
  • reduce the number of cars in hold tracks
  • automatically collect and store car data for maintenance purposes
  • improve overall better customer service
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) formed an Automatic Car Identification (ACI) Committee in January 1966, chaired by Illinois Central's director of data control, W. H. Thompson. In September 1967, the AAR Board of Directors announced that Sylvania's KarTrack system would be the industry standard. Up to two million freight cars and other pieces of North American rolling stock would be labelled, at a cost of $20,000,000. ACI labels are applied at Pullman-Standard's Bessemer, AL plant (top photo) and by Southern Pacific painters at Sacramento (below) in 1968:


The ACI system comprised three parts: label, scanner and decoder. 


The scanner was housed in a weathertight steel case containing colour-sensitive optical and electrical equipment. A beam of high-intensity light, projected through a window, formed a 9-foot curtain on car sides. Reflectorized stripes on the labels bounced light back to the scanner in the same path as the original beam. The scanner read the reflected light from the stripes on the ACI label, scanning them at high-speed from bottom to top, one digit at a time.


The decoder received optical data from the scanner's reading of the label in the form of electrical signals and translated this input into meaningful numbers fed into a central computer or converted into a printed list. A car counter counted cars passing the scanner, notifying the decoder of any cars without labels and correlating TOFC/COFC to the flat cars they were carried on.


ACI labels were produced using 13 stripes measuring 5 3/4" x 1" on steel plate measuring up to 10x22 inches. Horizontal strips of black, red, blue and white reflectorized Scotchlite material, more than 200 times brighter than the brightest available paint were arranged vertically 3/8" apart. Each label had a coloured stripe for each of the 13 digits that identified each car in five sections:
  • a validity check digit to confirm that the scanner had read the label properly, based on a mathematical calculation derived from the stripes applied to each label
  • "stop reading" stripe
  • six stripes one for each digit in the car number 
  • four stripes for each letter in the car owner and a numberical code for the car type
  • "start reading" stripe
There were four steps in producing every pair of ACI labels for each car. CN shop forces at Toronto Yard (above) were training, preparing and applying in 1968. The four steps:
  • apply protectively-coated adhesive-backed horizontal stripes to the steel label plate
  • paint the plate with rust-resistant black paint
  • remove the protective coating from each strip
  • fasten the completed painted ACI plate to each side of a car (below) as at Illinois Central's Markham Yard in 1968

In 1968, 38 railroads including CN were applying ACI labels, and 10 railroads had ACI installations along their lines. Illinois Central planned to label 8,000 of its 51,000 cars by January 1, 1969. CN planned to label 200,000 pieces of equipment by January 1, 1970. Southern Pacific fed ACI data into its Total Operations Processing System computerized car information system.


ACI was abandoned in the late 1970s due to problems with reading the labels. Up to 20% of cars' labels had become unreadable due to dirt, grime, damage or missing labels. Railroads continued manually entering car data into their car fleet management systems. Within a few years, a new system of wayside car readers would be implemented.  In the 1990s, Automatic Equipment Identification tags would become the state-of-the-art car identification system, reaching full implementation in 1994.

Running extra...

Big week coming up! Saturday is the annual Kingston Rail-O-Rama train show. Next Tuesday it's off the Associated Railroaders of Kingston March meeting at which I'll be presenting some Kingston Platform Scenes. Through all the changing scenes of life!

Ever been to a plowing match? I hadn't until the city plowed an unusually small amount of snow on an unusually warm day on our street. The result is enough to make me furrow my brow!


Steve Boyko said...

Nice detail on the AEI labels! I did a bit of research on them for my "Robot Railfans" article over at TTP. I'm glad you added a lot more detail. I like seeing those AEI labels still clinging to some old rail cars.

Eric said...

Thanks, Steve. I remember finding at least one fallen-off ACI label plate along the tracks of the CN Kingston Sub. Like everything else on the railway, fairly big and heavy. I enjoyed the AEI tags and their tracking information...while it was public...before 9/11 ruined that!

Had me thinking about TTP for a minute - you know, the trade deal? No no, that's TPP! Anyway, TTP is a fine blog.


Greg Prosmushkin said...

Thanks you Eric. For the history of the ACI Label plates. It looked like a great idea back then. Thanks for the share.
Greg Prosmushkin

Eric said...

It's my pleasure, Greg. Indeed, in retrospect ACI labels must have seemed like 'the next big thing' at the time.

I enjoy delving into such stories and sharing them on Trackside Treasure.
Great to have you aboard and stay tuned for more!


Greg Prosmushkin said...
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