The future of freight is bright. Crucial change is happening in the industry that looks to play a vital role in shaping a more efficient railway in 2023 and beyond. We have identified some of the key themes that are emerging, as well as what we have learnt from the freight evolution so far.
The role of innovation
Digitalisation has played a huge part in speeding up operations across the network and reducing staffing costs. Forward-thinking digital systems have streamlined processes and removed some of the tedious admin tasks, helping both depot and office staff perform their jobs more safely, efficiently and accurately.
But it’s not just digital advancements that are making an impact. Physical inventions are just as essential to the evolution of freight. Ground-breaking concepts are emerging, such as the repurposing of passenger rolling stock for high-speed freight, the shortening of former coal wagons to create aggregate wagons, and low platform container flats that allow more high cube containers to be hauled by a single train. All these innovations are driving efficiencies and helping to move freight to a more fruitful place in 2023.
Net Zero Transition
The carbon benefits that rail freight can provide are well documented. Modal shift will move more goods by rail freight and will play a significant part in the nation’s transition to Net Zero. Even though freight trains are mainly diesel hauled, they generate only a quarter of carbon emissions that road freight does. At the same time, freight is still one of the largest emitting sectors in the UK economy.
To counter this, freight must look at ways to reduce fuel consumption. Alternative fuels can make a difference, but may take a while to play out. Simplifying logistical arrangements is the most logical solution in the meantime.
An effective model is to use rail for trunk haulage to regional terminals, before switching to road to connect railhead to customer. In an ideal world, this would be accomplished through an integrated process where a customer only needs to coordinate one party to deliver their items from door to door, rather than arranging three different modes of transportation separately.
Better planning techniques
For rail freight to compete more directly with road transport and meet the modal shift targets desired, it needs to be simpler for customers to deal with, quicker at responding to demand, and have the means in place to facilitate shorter planning horizons.
Better planning is necessary if freight is to improve service satisfaction and boost customers’ confidence across the industry. Regular freight flows need to be planned as far in advance as passenger services to reduce delays across the network.
When it comes to finding available paths for new freight flows or to satisfy short notice demand, the published timetable is crowded, with schedules giving the appearance of near saturation of the network.
Analysis 3Squared has run as part of our PathPlanner application indicates that in some areas, only 26% of booked freight trains run, which hinders the release of otherwise available capacity.
3Squared’s PathPlanner and Containers by Rail tools are designed to help freight customers plan better. The systems identify untapped routes, making it easier for customers to book cargo onto existing trains that are already running. For example, if a customer is looking to transport a box of cargo to a location last minute, 3Sqaured solutions can identify which providers can ship the load and at what cost, while using historical train data and machine learning technology to suggest paths that may have been previously hidden.
The key to growing rail freight in 2023 is to take a whole-system approach. Breakthrough innovations are bridging the gaps, bringing about much-needed change in the sector, and simplifying previously complex operations. If the freight sector is to prosper in the modal shift space and take full advantage of the breadth of opportunities that lie ahead, it must adapt to shifting customer demands and adopt a service mentality at its very core.