Month: March 2021

Digital solutions for rail freight

Rail Freight Train

It is evident that the current and ever evolving pandemic has presented the rail industry with a number of exceptional challenges. However, due to the unforeseen circumstances, opportunities have also been created; one of which is the industry’s ability to take a considered look at how to create much needed improvements for the UK’s freight sector.


The restrictions on normal ways of working across the industry have paved the way to introduce and maximise on digital solutions that benefit the freight sector and the wider rail industry alike. By working collaboratively with freight operators and industry groups, we have delivered solutions designed for use throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Path Planner

Working with Rail Operations Group and Freightliner, we have developed our new Path Planner solution that allows freight operators to carry out very short-term planning digitally and more effectively. The software identifies and capitalises on the white space available on a route; this is pertinent to operators now, as the industry debates how to better share network access between freight and passenger, and when we emerge from reduced timetables, as it enables the network to be used to maximum efficiency and reduce the risk of paths going unused.

This integrated software solution provides planners with a historical record of train movements, quickly identifying schedules that are frequently cancelled or part-used. Armed with this data, operators can then bid for paths through the Very Short-Term Planning (VSTP) system, allowing them to take advantage of much needed spare, and potentially wasted capacity.

The ground-breaking Path Planner will host a real-time capacity exchange, offering operators the chance to relinquish scheduled paths on a one-by-one basis on any given day. The efficiency of the software not only removes the need for the previous manual and inefficient processes but allows operators to maximise their opportunities to move vehicles and make the most of the infrastructure available every day.

Path Planner is one of the vital innovative solutions available to support the drive towards modal shift:  moving freight from road to rail where possible and supporting the industry’s aim to be more responsive by applying technology to realise the potential for future freight recovery.

The capacity issues that freight operators face have long been evident on the UK’s rail network and continue to be a challenge. Since the pandemic’s impact on the normal running of the railway, companies like ours have been able to thrive through providing innovative digital solutions that have allowed the industry to operate as remotely and safely as possible, while presenting long-term benefits to all involved.

Greener railway

Compared with road transport, one freight train moves the equivalent of over 70 HGV lorries, while emitting only 25% of the carbon emissions. Using the UK rail network as effectively and efficiently as possible for freight will play a huge part in the challenge to decarbonise our transport system.

Already identified by the Department for Transport as one of the most efficient ways of moving goods over long distances (policy paper on decarbonising transport – March 2020), freight operators continue to reduce their carbon emissions year on year, demonstrating a clear commitment to a greener railway.

Partnership with GB Railfreight

3Squared has worked with GB Railfreight for more than six years. The successful partnership represents a shared commitment to make the UK rail freight sector more efficient, cost effective and sustainable. The collaborative working relationship is testament to both parties’ commitment to advancing the use of digital solutions, while exploring even more innovative ways to add value to GB Railfreight and the wider freight environment.

We agree with John Smith, Managing Director of GB Railfreight, who stated recently:

“Technological advances have played a huge role in the development of the rail freight sector over recent years, but these have tended to be incremental improvements rather than quantum leaps. Digital technology is playing an ever-increasing role in the efficient and safe operation of the railway, and … is playing an important role in making the most effective use of the UK’s congested railway, which increases the opportunities to increase freight traffic.”

We recently agreed a further 3-year contract with GB Railfreight, further cementing our successful partnership and joined up approach to developing digital solutions. Through our award-winning RailSmart suite of products, we have created a platform to work together towards a greener and more efficient railway.

Back to the future

Traditionally, freight operators moved goods such as parcels from station to station, but this practice was brought to an end in the 1990s. The freight sector has used the pandemic’s impact on the rail industry to investigate the viability of bringing this service back by trialling converted surplus passenger trains as fast freight services.

With the increase in online orders and the resulting pressure on delivery services, the trains will provide not only an accelerated mode of transporting the goods, but lessen the environmental impact the equivalent road transport would have produced.

The ability to once again move parcels by freight is a fantastic example of how a service from a bygone era can be revitalised if the circumstances allow for innovative thinking. Bringing this trial to fruition would not only have a positive impact on the UK transport industry’s carbon footprint, but be the perfect example of how technology can bring an old practice in line with today’s priorities.

How is 3Squared helping to achieve a green railway?

3Squared software to help a greener railway

In a recent article from The Economist ‘How Britain decarbonised faster than any other rich country’ we are reminded about how, in 2008, Britain became the first country in the world to legally commit to carbon-emission reduction with the passing of the Climate Change Act.  Furthermore, in the summer of 2020 we spent two months without burning coal for the first time since 1882.

The article quotes statistics from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy:

‘The elimination of power stations that burn coal has helped Britain cut its carbon emissions faster than any other rich country since 1990. They are down by 44%, according to data collected by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) during a period when the economy grew by two-thirds.’

It goes on to asks questions of how approaches to achieve decarbonisation can be accomplished in the production of heat and the powering of transport: the two largest contributors to the country’s carbon emissions.  The part we can play in contributing towards the decarbonisation of rail is a thread that runs through all that we do at 3Squared, as a supplier to rail and as a consumer of energy.  At the recent National Rail Recovery Conference it was acknowledged that there is already a lot of effort being made in this area, but there is a phenomenal amount of work still to be done.  Whether working towards Net Zero 2050, or an interim 50% reduction by 2030 we can all contribute to the challenge.

Here at 3Squared we pride ourselves on our commitment to sustainability and playing our part in achieving a zero-carbon railway. There are obvious system-wide initiatives that will make a huge difference to the impact we have on the environment, such as electrification and alternative fuels, but these are long-term projects. There are so many other incremental changes taking place right now that are contributing to improvements across the whole network and moving our industry closer to the Net Zero goal.

Our whole ethos at 3Squared focuses on helping our clients become safer, more efficient and greener through digitalisation.

This is realised through our pioneering RailSmart suite of software tools and something that has been developed hand in hand with the industry and our clients to ensure we can help them meet current and future challenges.

It is difficult; there is no doubt that innovation and digitalisation are both an integral part of improving the industry’s environmental impact, but in many cases the incremental changes and improvements that can be made more quickly cannot necessarily be pinned to short-term financial gains. This is because most digital solutions are embedded in the larger cumulative actions taking place.

Our commitment to sustainability is not limited to our product development.  We actively consider the contribution each individual application within the RailSmart suite makes towards a sustainable railway. We mirror this commitment to sustainability in the office:  we focus on recycling all waste, source consumables locally and encourage our staff to take up active travel wherever possible by providing Cycle to Work funding for example.

We support clients as they develop the means to realise their innovation and digitalisation targets.

In most cases the question is centred on what we can develop, or build upon, to provide solutions not only for the challenges we have now but those that are designed to adapt to the future. Providing digital condition-based monitoring applications to make sure clients can gain the best possible lifecycle from their assets is one such example.

According to the RSSB’s Rail Technical Strategy  the rail industry is “neither incentivised nor aligned to improve the efficiency of rolling stock or infrastructure” but at 3Squared we wholeheartedly believe in being a part of the positive change needed to realise the aims of the 2050 net zero emissions targets.  We agree with Malcom Brown, CEO of Angel Trains and Chair of the Decarbonisation Taskforce, that “it is no longer a question of what’s the business case, but [crucially] what’s the fastest and most efficient track to zero?”.

Through RailSmart digital monitoring, we make sure that train operators, passenger and freight alike, can optimise the efficiency of their vehicles, and do so by putting their people at the heart of that process.

One example of this is our Co-Pilot tool*

This is an in-cab system that enables the driver to provide real-time feedback of the vehicle’s performance against the timetable.

However, this is not simply a tool that tracks punctuality.  By enabling the driver to communicate from the cab, in real time, Co-Pilot helps operators improve energy consumption and optimise their vehicles’ regulation.  The system simultaneously captures additional important information such as wheel slippage or rough-riding.  These additional details are essential to compiling that bigger “digital picture” of the vehicle’s performance and thus its efficiency.

In the RSSB report CLEAR, the fleet-wide assessment of rail emissions factors, it was proved that any measure that enabled “less defensive driving” had a positive impact on a vehicle’s efficiency.

We are immensely proud that Co-Pilot is actively helping our clients, and their staff, drive vehicle efficiencies in this way.  This is one of many examples of how we can support the industry to make the necessary changes as we push towards a greener railway through digitisation and to be on track towards achieving net zero.

Finding ways to make an immediate impact

The current pandemic has given us a number of challenges we never thought we would face, but it has also given us opportunities to develop and accelerate innovation and decrease our carbon emissions. One of those opportunities comes in the form of moving freight from road to rail. The Rail Freight Group quotes that one freight train is the equivalent to 76HGVs; this represents a reduction in CO₂ emissions of up to 76 per cent compared to road.

We consistently work in partnership with clients and industry stakeholders, and we recognise the need to help encourage modal shift whilst making rail freight operations as efficient as possible.  This is why we developed our Path Planner tool to help increase freight usage across the network.

Working with RSSB we developed a system which would allow for extremely short-term planning (i.e. VSTP) of freight paths by using the white space made available due to lower passenger numbers or last minute passenger path cancellations or changes. It allows freight operators to find gaps in the timetable which they can fill which in turn decreases the time they would be sat in depots waiting for a space.

We believe Path Planner is one of the first steps towards truly maximising access to the network for rail freight which aligns with industry’s aim to be more proactive. Path Planner will save freight operators time and resource in validating VSTPs based on historic data. This will enable more services to run at very short notice. Better short-term planning creates the potential to reduce delays across the network, allowing both passenger and freight trains to reach their destinations on time whilst supporting modal shift, which is a crucial part in the Net Zero journey.

*Co-Pilot was previously known as MTISA