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.
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.
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.