RSSB in dialogue with rail freight 

The two sessions ‘dialogue with rail freight’ were organised by RSSB (Rail Safety & Standards Board) in conjunction with Rail Freight Group to help the industry look at the available research and to identify new opportunities.


Maggie Simpson, Director General, RFG, said ideas can come from many different places and the webinar was the start of a process to try and develop a framework for research going forward.

Luisa Moisio, R&D Programme Director, RSSB, said much good work was already underway and gave the example of REPAIR, “a game-changing tool in planning during network delays.”

REPAIR (Rapid Evaluation and Planning Analysis Infrastructure for Railways) is evidence of machine learning in action: taking patterns and trends in data and making predictions from that. Chris Jones, Manager – North East, Frazer-Nash Consultancy, said: “AI is the process of turning data into experience. That is, taking data and doing something useful with it.”

The Logistics Institute at the University of Hull worked with Frazer-Nash on the project and Amar Ramudhin, Director, explained that REPAIR was all about delay prediction for individual trains at the infrastructure level, including crew constraints. It was working with NR+ to put all the information into one database to create a digital platform to help planners to find the most efficient journeys.

It could determine, for instance, if it was better for a train to be diverted onto an alternative route or wait and leave three houses later on the original route.

The team will be delivering software for user trials in early January to get feedback from the freight operating companies.

James Fox, Commercial Director, 3Squared, gave a quick outline of their RSSB funded research work DFCM (Dynamic Freight Capacity Management: a digital solution for the management, co-ordination and dissemination of VSTP (very short term planning) schedules,

About 20% of freight moves are VSTP and are generally unvalidated which leads to the risk of delays. The Path Planner software requests participants to use a standard format to send information to Network Rail and trials will begin in the New Year. James Fox asked anyone who wishes to become involved to contact him

The second short session looked at research in Engineering. Paul Gray, Professional Lead – Engineering, RSSB, acknowledged the enormous amount of work which the freight industry has already done to recognise and reduce the derailment risk.

David Griffin, Principal System Safety Engineer, RSSB, said that there was a potential for derailment even when all train, track and loading met the industry standards.

Philip Shackleton, Principal Industrial Fellow, University of Hull, explained that steering groups have been set up to look at a variety of topics, including the higher tolerance of certain waggons to imbalances.

Other sessions covered highlighted the research that RSSB has been undertaking in People, skills and behaviour, and Preparing for the future.



After the first session, RSSB sent out questionnaires to the participants – and any others – to vote on priorities for future R&D. Luisa Moisio, R&D Programme Director, said engagement had been really good and a consensus was building.

The priority subjects were then divided into Incremental (short-term) Changes and Significant Changes, with a panel discussing each during the Session Two webinar, and other participants contributing via the chat function.

Incremental Changes
1) The Loads Book. It was written a long time ago and probably last significant upgrade was when the Class 66s were introduced. Needs updating to ensure that newer locos are included properly. Network Rail noted that it has proposed a workstream to cleanse the data, add missing infrastructure and locos, and to digitise it.  However, the research ask would be to improve the modelling to gain better, more accurate data.

2) Sectional running times. These are critical to ensuring the timetable is effective for freight, and, linked to the loads book, need to be updated, to ensure the ‘right compromise’ is used. Modelling based on real-life data capture could be one approach.

3) Heavy Axle Weight. A very significant part of current bulk traffic runs as heavy axle weight.  The incremental cost of running HAW on network is not clearly understood and research from a civil engineering aspect could help to inform this debate.

Significant Changes
1) Coupler strength – need a better understanding of options to improve coupler strength and rating of couplers to facilitate longer formations. Particularly relevant for double-headed and certain routes. Maybe also look at digital couplings.  There was some discussion over where the real need for improvement was, and thus what the right scope might be.

2) Energy efficient and low emissions freight timetabling – need to develop tools and guidance to help timetable development and support decision making.  This can perhaps build on existing work by Aether and Tarmac and University of Derby

3) Determine network impact of introduction of new loco power systems eg electrification, hydrogen, bio fuels. Will these solutions provide enough (reliable) power for heavy freight trains, and what might be the impact on the network

The webinar then moved onto a session looking further forward ‘Shaping the Future and Beyond Freight Alone’, focussing on competition with road and depots.

Participants warned of the major steps which road transport is taking in terms of decarbonisation – electric trucks, convoys, driverless vehicles and even the electric motorways (using pantographs). It was noted that trucks have typically a 5-10year life, compared to 30-40 for locos, so change is easier. In the end it comes down to price – so we need to increase rates and/or cut costs to win business. It was also suggested that we maybe we should look at working more collaboratively with road and integrating into a single supply chain.

The discussion on depots considered both maintenance and freight depots. Suggestions that the use of mobile maintenance units more efficient than bringing rolling stock into a depot. In terminals, need to speed up loading/ discharge or maybe follow road model of drop, swap and go. Also consider if there is a future for open air terminals operating in densely populated urban areas.


Luisa Moiso explained that RSSB was now scoping out the ideas in the list to build a pipeline. Need experts from freight to work with RSSB. Need champions and sponsors for research to endorse and agree on scopes and priorities. RSSB envisages using existing groups. Some ideas ready to go now. For others – look at different avenues, including not just research. RSSB already in constant dialogue with timetabling team at Network Rail. Not just about what RSSB can fund. Can push some needs to the right places to take up and pursue them. Use list to argue for more funding in the future.

RSSB plans to reconvene the group in July 2021.

Any suggestions, contact Robert Staunton,

Many thanks to all the speakers and to RSSB for their work in organising the event.