AMONG the most impressive presentations at the IRCA-UIC seminar on Customer-oriented Information Technology held in Stockholm on July 5-6 was a demonstration of RailTracker. Using a live connection to the internet, Unctad’s Coll Hunter demonstrated the system’s ability to locate freight consignments anywhere in the world where the relevant software is installed. By dialling up Tanzania Freight Corp, he was able to show the assembled 275 chief executives and IT experts from over 40 countries the status and position of a trainload of containerised freight consignments in the heart of Africa.Leaving aside the fact that one shipment had taken 12 days to travel a rather short distance, it was a fine illustration of what can be achieved with a relatively simple data system. Customers, shippers and forwarders can all track the progress of their freight by phone, internet or websites installed on individual railways that provide information from RailTracker databases. The latest version of RailTracker as used in Asia was fully described in RG 7.98 p477 and its initial applications in Africa in Rail Business Report 1995. RailTracker went live in Bangladesh and Zambia on July 15, and it is soon to be installed in Bulgaria and another east European country.Charles Dettmann, the AAR Executive Vice President, Operations & Research, outlined the principles of Interline Service Management now operating in several US corridors. Consignment information all passes through the AAR’s Train II computer system, giving connected railroads access to data about shipments across North America. Both presentations highlighted just what successful information systems can achieve.It was a different story in Europe, where a plethora of national IT systems had been developed independently. While Hermes had provided an effective link between networks from the end of the 1970s, it was unable to cope with today’s demands for yield management, market pricing and similar functions. These were available on France’s Resarail passenger ticketing and reservations system, but this was incompatible with systems developed in Germany. Attempts to achieve compatibility are focused on the Espoir group set up in 1997 (for the uninitiated Espoir stands for ’Edifact Solutions for Pan-European Open systems Interconnection of Railways’ and Edifact stands for Electronic Data Interchange For Adminstration, Commerce & Transport’), but it is clear that there are major disagreements between rival factions among Europe’s railways. Ugo Dell’ Arciprete, Databank Manager for Italian State Railways and Espoir Project Manager at the UIC, fears that attempts to render the different systems compatible may yet founder, leaving Europe’s railways unconnected in IT terms at a time when information is fast becoming the key in the battle to win customers from other modes.Ian Jordan, a Senior Vice President of Cap Gemini, highlighted the need for railways to own detailed information about their customers’ needs and shipments. Ownership of information increasingly represents power in business, and Jordan believed that railways must become logistics providers so that they are the transport brokers for services stretching from factories to the final consumer. He cited Swiss Federal Railways as not being interested in the contents of lorries being piggybacked over the Gotthard, and warned that it is important to know the contents and destination of shipments. This might, for example, have avoided an incident on the day after the Conrail break-up when jumbo jets had to be hired to fly GM car parts to Detroit that had wrongly arrived in Cleveland because hundreds of freight cars had crossed an interchange with no waybills.There have been plenty of warnings for railways in Europe and elsewhere – and another came at the High Speed & Tilting Trains Congress in London on July 1 when one delegate from Australia remarked that it had taken a few minutes to make his flight bookings but a week to obtain a seat on a train from Zürich to Bremen. Today’s IT capabilities should already have consigned such problems to history.