Get electronic waybills from railroads for railcar tracking

Electronic waybills are delivered in a file and the information is formatted in a standard way enabling computer systems to automatically import them. Coupling sighting (CLM) data with waybill data (aka shipping instructions) can be a powerful combination. For example, not only will you know where your railcars are and what station they are destined to, you will know what customer they are going to and what product they are carrying and many other helpful pieces of information about the shipment. If you receive inbound shipments, getting electronic waybills can be a huge increase in visibility because within a few minutes after a shipment is released to the rail carrier by the shipper, you will receive an electronic waybill record with all of the necessary information that you need to begin tracking the railcar (i.e. railcar initial / number, destination, route, etc.).

If you are party to the shipment (i.e. shipper, consignee, freight Payer), you should be able to get an electronic copy of the waybill for no charge from the Class I railroads and a few short lines and regionals. I can’t vouch for all of the railroads, but I’ve been told that they prefer if just one account is established per company. So don’t be surprised if they are not too responsive if three other departments in your company have already hit them up for the same thing. After all, this is a free service they are providing. Sounds like a lot of hassle you say? Don’t VANs (value added networks) do this already? Sure. Aren’t the waybills in the format of EDI (electronic data interchange) gobbledygook (yes this is the correct spelling – I looked it up in Wikipedia) format when you get them directly from the railroads? Yes. And yes it is true that the VAN can translate the waybill record into something that is easier to work with such as a comma delimited text file or an Excel spreadsheet. They can also deliver the files in several different ways. But in many cases, getting the waybills directly from the railroads can save you significant money – even when you factor in the cost of the tools and effort required to get the files and translate the EDI formatting.

Let’s look at some rough costs and of course I encourage you to check around yourself. Based on my experience, getting waybills from a VAN (value added network) translated to a simple text format (comma delimited) will run you about $0.20 to $0.30 per record. Typically there is only one waybill record generated per shipment, but sometimes corrections cause two or more records to be generated. To keep things simple, let’s just assume that there is only one record per shipment and average it out to $0.25 per record. Hey, we are a smallish shipper (i.e. less than 100 shipments per month), you think to yourself. $0.25 per record is nothing – that would only be $25.00 per month! Whoa there high roller, most VANs have a minimum monthly rate with at least a one year commitment. The monthly minimum can be as high as $2,000. Ouch! If you are a larger shipper with 10,000 shipments per month, you are looking at a $2,500 per month. For mid-size shippers, you will be paying at least several hundred dollars per month and perhaps a high monthly minimum. Again, check around yourself for exact pricing for the particular situation, but at least you know the questions to ask and the costs to look out for.

Ok, now is the time for a shameless plug. Hey, I’ve got to pay a few bills too! For you smallish shippers out there, there is at least one value added reseller (VAR) of a leading VAN (VANVAR?) that will sell you just the waybill records that you need. The data is bundled with a software system that will manage the data and it can be less expensive than going directly with a VAN. For you larger shippers or committed do-it-yourselfers, read on.

If you are still game at getting waybills directly from the railroads, here is how to do it.

Contact the e-business departments of the railroads that originate your inbound or outbound shipments. Note that most short line or regional railroads will not be able to deliver waybill records to you. This is typically not a problem because for most railcar shipments in North America, at least one Class I railroad is involved in the shipment. All Canadian and U.S. Class I’s can provide waybills; I have no experience with Mexican railroads (if anyone does, please post your experiences). If the railroad that originates the shipments cannot provide them to you, then contact the next Class I railroad in the route and ask them to provide them. If you are not sure how to reach these departments, just call the central customer service number and ask them to transfer you. You will need to send a letter on your company letterhead authorizing this and specifying which waybills you wish to receive for example, all loaded shipments where Company ABC is the consignee. Once this letter is received, they will typically send you a form with some information they need from you. Here is the information that you will need at your fingertips in order to fill out most forms (I recommend including it in the letter to save time, but you will probably need to fill out the form anyway):

  1. Your company network IP address. When you try to connect to the railroad FTP server from within your company, your connection will have an IP address. Some railroads need to know what that address or range of addresses will be so that they can allow it through their firewall. You can get this from your IT department.
  2. Your company business contact telephone number, email address, mailing address.
  3. Your company technical contact telephone number, email address, mailing address and 24 hour contact number. This should be someone who is familiar with your network and FTP. Don’t panic, I have never heard of a railroad contacting someone in the middle of the night. However, be sure to care for your FTP account and notify the railroad if you are no longer using it.
  4. All of the company names and variations (that you know of) that you ship or receive freight under. For example, “ABC Corporation”, “ABC Corp.”, “ABC Inc.”. The spelling must be exact. Note: if you have a lot of variations in spellings contact your trading partners and ask that they use a consistent spelling. This is critical in automation. You may find that if the variations persist, it may be too unreliable to get waybills directly from railroads due to all of the manual intervention required for all of these different spellings at each different railroad. In this case, I recommend that you get your waybills from a VAR or your friendly VANVAR. See more about this here. My rule of thumb: The more variations of company spellings and the more railroads that you ship with, the more you should look to a VAN or VANVAR to provide electronic waybills.
  5. Optional: FTP server address, folder, username, password for railroads to push waybills to. You can get this from your IT department. If you prefer that the waybill data is pushed to your own FTP server, please let the railroad know. In some cases, particularly with short lines, they will not be able to provide an FTP server for you to pull data from anyway. If you do not have an FTP server, and need one, please let me know and I can help you out.

After you return the completed form, they will establish an FTP server account and waybill record files will begin showing up. You will be provided the address, user name and password to the FTP server.

Now that the railroads are sending waybills to you, there are two additional challenges. Getting the waybill files from the FTP servers and then translating those files into a useable format like a spreadsheet or comma-delimited text.

Getting the waybill files from the FTP server is fairly simple when you know how to do it. You can use something as simple as Windows Explorer (not Internet Explorer). Just type the FTP address into address text box at the top (example: ftp://ftp.myftpserver.com). It will then prompt you for a user name and password and voila, you are in! After that, you may copy and paste the files as you would from any other folder. Note that some of the servers will remove the files once they have been copied. Be sure that you remove the files yourself if they are not removed automatically so the files don’t stack up and you get a midnight call from the frustrated FTP server admin who noticed that your account is hogging all of his precious free disk space. There are other good FTP clients such as Core FTP (free) and WS_FTP (fifty bucks or so, but loaded with features and automation). If you wish to embed FTP into a software application for the ultimate in automation, I have had really good results with products from Dart Communications.

Now the translating. There are software components that you can embed in a software application. This is more complex, but will enable you to really fine tune and completely automate the process. Take a look at a company called Etasoft. I have used a product of theirs with good results. There are other types of translators – if you search on “EDI translators”, you will find several. The investment in translator software ($1,500 to $3,000 or more) can be intimidating, but compared to the cost of paying for VAN translation and you may come out way ahead in the long run.

OK, so what is the format of these electronic waybills anyways? For you techies, here is the deal. ASC X12 is a committee chartered by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) to develop uniform standards for interindustry electronic exchange of business transactions electronic data interchange (EDI). This committee came up with transaction sets for the rail industry and the waybill is called “417”. The latest “version” of the 417 is 005050 (Version 5, Release 5, Subrelease 0). You can purchase the specification here for about $300, which will show you how to interpret or translate the transaction set.

There is another option that provides the combined FTP getting and translation of waybills. Warning: this is another plug (remember those bills I have to pay?). Railcar Management System (RMS) can download from multiple FTP servers and translate waybills in an automated fashion. All you have to do is tell RMS about where to pick up the files (Internet address, user name, password) and tell it when to run. For a reasonable monthly fee, the RMS Waybill license enables you to easily get waybills directly from the rail carriers. RMS stores the original waybills files as well as the data in its database. Its report writer enables you to export the waybill records in Excel, comma delimited, and many other formats.

Hopefully you now have a better idea about why and how to get electronic waybills from the railroads. Thanks for reading and please post comments that will help us all learn more about railroad railcar tracking!

All the best,


Jim Dalrymple


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