Unlocking Innovation: Digital Journeys, Day 3

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22 April 2020

The potential for better use of data to improve the prospects for rail freight came under the spotlight during day three of the Railway Industry Association (RIA’s) ‘Digital Journeys for Rail Passengers & Freight’ webinar series.

Greg March, head of planning and resource at Rail Operations Group, and Prof Amar Ramudhin, director of the Logistics Institute at the University of Hull, were both enthusiastic about how increasing the use of data and, crucially, finding the best ways to put that data to use could help shift freight onto Britain’s rail network. 

RIA’s online event, attended by more than 110 delegates, was entitled ‘Better Use of Rail Freight’ and opened with Greg March outlining how road use for freight has grown over the past decade, driven by the e-commerce boom and companies such as Amazon. Delivery-van use in particular has ballooned in recent years. 

Rail freight is largely, March said, “incredibly competitive” and offering “pretty tight” margins. Operators need to “take the plunge and sink capital investment in – without guaranteed volumes that’s a challenging thing to do”.

March outlined his vision for rail freight’s fightback, including Rail Operations Groups’ Project Orion, a high-speed logistics initiative; working with Porterbrook Leasing on re-purposing Class 769 Bi-Mode trains and the new ‘class 93’ hybrid locomotive; a new bogie design for high-speed inter-modal services; and automated vehicles for loading.

But many challenges remain, including an industry-wide need to understand the rail network’s capacity and capabilities. Too much of the information that dynamic freight operators need to access remains paper-based, he said.

Prof Ramudhin described the Network Rail+ Integrated Digitised Rail Infrastructure Platform – an initiative with the potential to help with freight planning, including tackling the paper-based complexity referred to by March.

NR+, Prof Ramudhin said, combines the many information sources required for planning rail movements into a single database that is “intuitive and interactive”. It allows the instant identification of potential freight routes and potential engineering access conflicts. NR+ has application programming interfaces (APIs), and Prof Ramudhin encouraged SMEs to engage with the project.

RIA’s webinar also included two ‘elevator pitches’. Yves Sterbak-Dicke described his firm Protostellar, a spin-off company majority owned by Thales Group that provides live status reports for freight, for example digital check-in and check-out at small- to medium-sized ports.

Lucy Prior of 3Squared Ltd discussed her Sheffield-based firm’s software expertise and its applications in rail, for example with operations and safety.

She summed up the overall data challenge in observing that while a sizeable volume of data is increasingly being captured, the industry needs to start using the data “a lot more smartly”.
Prof Ramudhin said he was in “ongoing conversations” with Network Rail about the best way forward in respect of digital data but that the industry faces a “huge challenge” in working with “legacy systems”. As an example of the challenges of gathering consistent data, he said that some train stations have different names on different systems.

Reference was also made to the current coronavirus pandemic, with March saying: “It almost took the COVID-19 crisis to put freight at the forefront. We need to make sure that once this crisis has passed, we don’t go back to situation where freight is in the background, and instead it is prioritised.”

Prior said COVID-19 may even “have accelerated somewhat” a trend towards “doing more with SMEs”, praising Network Rail’s SME engagement initiatives.

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