Public Lab Research note

Tracking Oil Trains Using RFIDs

by tonyc | August 20, 2015 23:16 20 Aug 23:16 | #12159 | #12159

I want to start a conversation about how an open hardware/software project could help track the movements of oil trains through communities. Currently this information is closely guarded, but directly impacts the physical safety and environmental health of communities all over the country.

Every piece of rolling stock in the US and Canada is equipped with an RFID tag. The railroads invented RFID, as a matter of fact.

Can we develop a tool that:

  • logs all RFID numbers of trains passing by a sensor
  • captures video of any cars that are not already in the system (compares RFID to a list of cars already logged)
  • has IR LEDs to allow nighttime video capture
  • makes it easy for a non-technical person to retrieve an SD card from the device and upload to a central website-based db
  • blends into the environment to avoid vandalism or theft

The software side would support:

  • means for a volunteer to visually verify whether or not a train car was oil/coal car or not (view images and click y/n kind of interface)
  • associate it with the relevant rfid#
  • create data of rail traffic in a way that can be useful in visualizing oil train traffic, increases/decreases in traffic/exposure

I imagine this could combine existing efforts and fit into the model of PL Kits Program, where communities could adopt an area, place and support a monitoring unit on a donor's site near the tracks (who would be more interested in whether or not tons of oil are going by than a location owner?).

My attempt and results

I'm just putting this out there. I'm new here and not technical. Just an idea guy.

Questions and next steps

Any interest in this? How could this work? What do you think of this?

Why I'm interested

My folks live in a town with increasing oil train traffic and do not have the means to coordinate a monitoring effort. The information is publicly available, but the ability to look and log it is out of reach for most communities. Think this is something we can fix.


Hi @tonyc I think there are some people in Pittsburgh interested in doing something very similar! I've emailed them the link. I hope they reach out! -N

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I've also heard on the lists about someone using thermal cameras in the Portland area to try to measure gases from oil trains (i think?). Could be worth digging a bit there.

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Came across this project in our own back yard via an OPB story today. Seems like they'd be likely collaborators.

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