Transforming rail freight through technology

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 16

Rail freight in the UK is changing, with traditional markets such as coal and steel falling significantly and growth coming in new sectors where user expectations are constantly increasing, writes Maggie Simpson, executive director of the Rail Freight Group (RFG). Rising to these challenges and delivering for customers places a greater reliance on innovation and development in the industry.

At RFG we understand the need for innovation, which is why we chose ‘Transforming rail freight through technology’ as the theme for our Spring Members’ Meeting. The speakers were asked to consider how technology could help rail freight growth in a range of areas. 

All the speakers agreed that the rail freight industry needs to reinvent itself to find new markets and serve existing ones more efficiently – and technology can help us do that. 

Steve Pryce, DB Cargo head of quality management, highlighted how our competitors were rapidly moving ahead to implement groundbreaking changes. He said that the road industry continues to innovate with, for instance, autonomous driving, platooning and continuing emissions efficiencies. This means rail needs to get smarter as cities get greener and transport patterns change. 

Various speakers emphasised the need to replace Excel spreadsheets and ‘men standing beside tracks with pencils’ with integrated planning tools, and increased digitalisation for everything from maintenance scheduling to building IT interfaces with end customers. 

Andrew Bowen, project engineering director at DP World London Gateway, explained how automation at the port had provided a real leap forward, especially as the size of container ships continues to get larger.

But this increasing size then raises the question of moving ever greater numbers of containers into and out of the port as quickly as possible. The effectiveness of the interface of port and railway systems is reduced because the rail terminal is less automated than the equivalent quay side facilities, so more work is needed to progress this area. 

Case studies 

Network Rail has a number of projects which are designed to improve services to customers by instigating projects that will lead to more efficiency, reduced operating costs, greater visibility across the supply chain, increased network performance and capacity, and lower barriers to entry. 

Quite a tall order by anyone’s standards, although David Young, Network Rail’s CACI project sponsor, explained that progress had already been made with Mobile Timetable Information Service (MTISA) already live, mobile consisting (MCA) being rolled out and Freight Collaborative Decision Making (F-CDM) going through workshops at the moment. 

The ‘men with pencils’ contingent did get some recognition from Richard Wilby, a consultant at Scott Lister, when he spoke about what the railway industry can learn from aerospace. He emphasised the value of talking to “the guys who get their hands on the product” as they know more than the designers when it comes to maintenance issues. 

We also looked briefly at how the use of alternative fuels might revolutionise the rail industry. Paul Turner at Revolve Technologies told us that using hydrogen as an alternative energy would cut emissions while matching our power needs.  

Unfortunately, as is the case with other green fuels, there are some significant challenges to be overcome, not least the need for a hydrogen storage wagon to be pulled on each train, and a complete fuel logistics operation to be established.  

However, hydrogen is the by-product of many industrial processes so is cheap to produce and much safer than many people think, and the system can be retro-fitted on locos, so the potential remains. 

Overall, the meeting recognised our industry’s need to adapt to changing market conditions and that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to do business with us – and that technology will play a major part in that process.

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