10 recipes to revitalize the freight railways

Analysis of Mediarail.be - Signalling technician and railways observer

We had already talked in the past  about the transformation of the industry and the causes that have degraded the railway as a largely minority transport. Rather than studying the past, it is now more interesting to look forward and to outline some solutions to revitalize rail freight. To transfer trucks on the train, to get freight wagons into warehouses and to fit into the logistics are possible actions under certain conditions, which it is always worth to remember. A small prospective.

1 - An update with industry
Formerly dominant mode of transport, railway is part of the trilogy rail / coal / steel that made the heyday of industrial nineteenth century. Today , coal has virtually disappeared from the continent and heavy industry faded in favor of smaller firms and complex logistics flows . The just-in-time management tends to minimize the stocks, which are expensive because unsold. This sets a largely demand sensitive  and the road sector has the better response. The railroad sector, characterized by its slow pace, must be reviewed to be in line with the new industrial environment.

Public rail services is not intented to serve all cases of industrial figures. It is imperative to focus investments on traffic generating large volumes, as show on this picture, with a warehouse for drink's logistics which have a big rate of turnover (photo Railfreight portal)
Logistics flows have now become very complex and interdependent, as shown in the diagram above. Any problems with a link in the chain causes delays cascade throughout the chain. To achieve the desired reliability, chargers too often choose the road sector and involve railways when strictly necessary (photo www.asahigolf.co.jp)

2 – Specialized rail companies

The reactivity in the industrial world requires a different management than passenger railway management : very early morning or late , night work hours, one week is not like an other. Planning can never be done as a yearly pre-established action plan. The subsidiarisation and specialization answer the question, as the flexibility of the staff , including the manoeuvres in industrial areas. Local companies already exist and often this is the machinists who drive and who couples / uncouples cars, helped by the support staff if required. In addition, a real subsidiary can to better manage and negotiate the financial aspects, risk and responsibility. Historical incumbents should transform their freight sector by a independent subsidiary which can to respond to the private logistics sector. This is what makes de German railways with their subsidiary DB Schenker, today a global company.

The financial independence of companies permit to invest in rolling stock which they need and use this rolling stock with better efficiency (TRAXX locomotive from private company Crossrail passing at Cologne in april 2012 - photo by peters452002 via Flickr)

3 - Rethinking railway technology
The wagons fleet now offers a degree of specialization, but none can move alone. Large factories have their own means of traction as the Unimog  rail/road vehicle. For smaller customers, heavy diesel locomotive from 80 to 88 tons of 1700kW remains a relevant issue. One option would be to adopt  the automatic coupler as it is used in Russia and in the USA , or our European Emus . The rolling floors such as exist in cargo airplane may also accelerate loading / unloading in certain circumstances. The acceleration of loading/unloading is the main focus of research initiated by most manufacturers, as the pictures show below. About schedules, by night or day , it would be appropriate to bring the train with a speed to 120km/h or 140km/h for freight trains of less than 2000 tons . By extension, we have dithered too long on adoption - or not – of new brakes that  - on the wagons fleet -, are non -electric unlike the passenger trains . The wagon hire companies have their share of responsibility in indecision as regarding to the costs that would result . The costs of a GPS module installed on each wagon should give an advantage to information and the fleet management (1).

Like aviation, some road trailers have a rolling floor for unloading a large volume of palets very quickly, rather than a unloading by forklift. The picture above shows us a unloading by rolling floor, not from a airplane but from a road trailer, by the Dutch firm Ancra specialized in automated loading truck. This solution can be implemented on a railway wagon (photo Ancra)
Freight wagons are subject to renewal with opening doors redesigned to deliver the entire volume of the wagon to load / unload as quickly as possible. Example with this Hiqqrrs-vw designed by the Swedish company Kockums Industrier for large volumes, such as paper rolls (photo Kockums Industrier)

4 - The importance of rail connections
Many companies were connected in the past by rail. In most cases, it is a track with dead end inside the private property of the company. This method requires more movements because the length of the reception track inside the company is often low , especially for SMEs. One solution would be to bring factories of medium size in a industrial park connected by rail. One or two rail tracks of 500m long can to receive a full train, without splitting. The companies have the whole day to perform the unloading / loading of pallets by forklifts. At the evening , the full train leave the park - loaded – which can be sorted if required in a marshalling yard. As wagon floor is located in an incompressible height - usually ca 1m of the ground - companies must be equipped with a goods perron . Small businesses for whom this is too expensive should unload wagons by forklift. However, certain goods require handling in a covered hall ( paper rolls ... ) which increase investment of industrial warehouses. According to the Supply Chain Magazine of April 2013, quoting a study of Jones Lang LaSalle, distributors may need about 25 million square meters of logistics space in the next five years . An idea to install more warehouses near railways ?

A freight dock with same height of wagon’s floor under a covered warehouse, for easy maneuvering of forklifts. This kind of warehouse could be shared with more companies. It take the whole lenght of the train, to avoid a maximum of maneuvering of wagons (photo www.jcbteletruk.com)

5 - The massification of goods
Since its inception, the railway always means volume. This evidence must be repeated to all people who promote the single wagon load system. The industrial park as described above answer to this question, if you operate only a full train. The pooling of logistics warehouses, multi-client, multi-product, could also answer to the question of the cost of building with a dock level for long train. These « shared » warehouses, located in all parts of Europe, could be linked by full train themselves multi-client, multi-product (2). This solution permit to bypass marshalling yards, more time-consuming, and quickly connect these logistics centers if the speed is increased to 120km/h in a overnight service. The shared warehouse requires only two operations : one in the early morning when train arrives, another operation the evening when the train is loaded . Loading process are done during the day, which is less expensive in terms on labour costs ...

The future Trilogy Port of Liège (Belgium) will bring the waterway, rail and the inevitable trucking. It was was designed from the outset to be more than a simple container's parking: this artist's impression shows us more warehouses immediately adjacent to it, which to enhance and to increase its value (photo Port of Liège)

6 - Control the logistics flow
There is nothing in common between the steel industry and the pharmaceutical sector. The steel industry uses big volumes and works by annual contract. The second works by « fine parcels », with clients who often have complex and urgent needs (hospitals, pharmacies ...). Between the two extremes, a host of logistical versions are available depending on the nature of the turn-over and the size of goods. The turn-over of drinks pallets is more faster than those of cosmetics. Textile logistics is very different from handling and shipping general cargo : this greatly influences the choice of storage hardware ( automated or manual ) and the frequency of shipments . In terms of frequency, the automotive industry often requires delivery « on fixed hour » in order to avoid unnecessarily overloading the plant with a big stock . This logistics flow control should be the cornerstone of any railway trade policy, despite the fact that the train is not intended to answer to all logistics scenarios.

The logistic’s flow control requires warehouses which exist for long time in the world of modern logistics, but which seem a novelty in the small world of railways. DB Schenker took that step everywhere in Europe, including Belgium as shown this artist design for a project in Antwerp. Unfortunately, we see yet the predominance of road transport, which indicates that the modal choices require 100% of reliability. Why railways haven't not this reliability ? (photo Bureau D'Hondt - DB Schenker)
The other aspect of the logistics flow control concerns the operation in a modern warehouse today: cross-docking, packaging, sorting, the completion of these tasks require professional synchronization and very expensive equipments including conveyors and automated pallet systems like the « Miniload ». These ultra-modern warehouses can be built only on the basis of strong financial foundation and resources which are never available for a state company (3D photo SSI Schäfer)

7 – Multimodal : increase the added value...
The percentage of plants and warehouses distant from railway is significant and is even encouraged by the public authorities , which provides industrial parks near highways. Multimodal transport should answer to this issue. However, it suffers from dedicated terminals that work only a few hours per day and make losses. In addition, the transshipment from road to rail requires heavy equipment, forcing truck carriers to join the terminal 2 to 3 hours before the departure of the train, which represent a waste of time. However, if we properly control the logistics flow by ensuring regular customer deliveries, the time factor does not play anymore. For creating profitable model, the multimodal terminal must to include a logistics warehouse to provide even more added value. This is what make many logistics company such as DHL, Kühne + Nagel , LKW Walter or Norfolk Line (3). 

Project in Basle North: also trimodal, we see five rows for trucks and only two for railways ... outside the granty crane (4 & 5)! Too schematic drawing ? (photo SBB Cargo)
In...Kazakhstan, we can found a good example : container rail terminal coupled with a large warehouse. A model to generalize (photo thebusinessyear.com)

...and improve expensive transhipments
Projects of improvements for transversal transshipments exist but are hard to turn in action. We can point as for example the Swiss Mobiler system, the Swedish transversal unloading unit of Kockums Industrier or the German Cargo Beamer project.

This seems to be obvious, but Mobiler system does not seem to have attracted outside the Alps. We are talking here about mobile boxes with a transversal transhipment. It ignores the expensive cranes and allows to create a low-cost terminal avaible at any time, but requests however a more expensive truck than a regular (photo www.th-wildau.de
The creative Swedish company Kockums Industrier has also worked on a wagon without any transfer of a semi-trailer by cranes. The result is his "Megaswing" where the floor pivots to unload / load road trailer. A process which looks like to the French system of Lohr Industrie. However, the Megaswing's system do not requires a specific terminal except a track in the courtyard of the client (photo of Kockums Industrier)

This is a revolutionary project once more from Germany. Such as Lohr Industries, he ask here a dedicated terminal and a millimetric stop of trains. This is a platform with semi-trailers encased between the two bogies, that moves on either side of the train, simultaneously with those of the whole train. According his conceptor, a train can be unload and reload in 15 minutes ! In the future, a life-sized experience will be undertaken between Calais Eurotunnel, Leipzig and Lithuania, in 2014 or 2015 according on different sources (photo Cargo Beamer)
8 – Rail paths 
It is a strong demand from shippers / railway carriers: avoid to put trains to a yard track because the passenger traffic takes priority over freight traffic . By day, the speed allows to insert a path of freight train between two regional trains services which have a speed average of less than 100 - 120km/h. But it is not the only improvement. A catalog of paths at 120km/h can be inserted into the passengers time-schedule. A carrier takes the path what he needs for, subject to the obligation to have sufficiently traction to reach the speed. In addition, the establishment of a catalog of paths avoids many  journeys in large non- industrial cities (Brussels , Amsterdam , Zurich, Geneva ... ) to share traffic loads across the whole network (4).

Between paths of passenger trafic, there are spaces to incorporate 2, 3 or 4  freight trains paths with speed of 120-140km/h. Except of course during rush hours... (photo by Mediarail.be)

9 - Information
It is the sea snake of logistics, despite the massive implementation of ERP. As described in footnote (1), the flow of information are subject to caution for many firms because their contents which reveals their industrial and commercial policy (5). A host of companies or spin-off offer many very diverse  computerized solutions but always non-interoperable . The current trend is to manage the logistics sector by pull flow, which means to have a global view of each items sold , such as details of each sales of stores (6). The other black-point of information is the state of a transport at a given time . The road can to answer the question by the GPS and the railway has already made a few test with mitigated success . But the information flow is crucial for a customer to be able to anticipate.

It is not enough to have a reporting on the train movements, but to know where is the parcel of the client and when it will be delivered somewhere in a middle of million parcels. A full range of technologies is avaible since a long time, but however they remain expensive (photo SSI Schäfer)

10 - To get beyond ideologies and taboos
Today, the industrial world is globalized and no longer refers to the nineteenth century. Interdependence has become the norm and markets are open and competitive. The coexistence of land and sea worlds demonstrates major cultural differences: between the railway - their policies are still essentially based on a state basis - and the world of containers with a global coverage , they do not speak the same language and they do not share the same cultures! It was believed for a moment that the integrated computer and networking could alleviate that problem (7). But the habits have a hard time in each world: supermarkets sector do not have the same constraints than chemical and automobile sectors.
On side of the railway sector, the subsidiarisation of the cargo division through an independent entity has always faced fierce reluctance of unions. Reasons: the splitting of the railways workers, which would result in a loss of the union strength and the introduction of working conditions separate by branch (freight vs passenger). This kind of taboo has already been overtaken by the German DBAG but stays in place in some state incumbents. On side of private sector, it is not uncommon to hear that logistics provides more temporary employment and low-quality job especially for young people. A campaign to upgrade the logistics sector could exceed these bad ideas.

Concerning industrial land supply, some governments stay more restrictive whit the idea of building permits for several hectares that provide "only" 100 or 150 jobs: it's too much to sacrifie of good agricultural land, they say . An urban and regional planning on a coherent and targeted area, not just along motorways, could be a solution. To another level, lower taxes for people who launch businesses could be a solution  practiced in some conditions and over a fixed period of time..

It is up to each individual to add water to the wine in order to reconnect the rail with the industry of today and to find more sustainable solutions without returning to the past, but by looking the future.

(2) According the literature of the world of logistics, the warehouse shared still seems to be hampered by legal questions, including the transfer of data which are subject to caution for many firms because their contents which reveals their industrial and commercial policy. In addition, logistics flow differ greatly from a firm to a other.
(3) See corporate videos of DHL - Kuhne+Nagel -  LKW Walter - Norfolk Line.
(4) In Belgium, traffic between Zeebrugge and Walloon region avoid Brussels via Denderleeuw and Ath. In Switzerland, the Gothard itinerary from Basle avoid Zürich. Cologne has a railway by pass on the south and west of the city to avoid Cologne Centrale Station. The Ducht have build a new freight line (Betuwelijn), to avoid the density of the local and regional traffic.
(5) Remember the claim from ECR against SNCF in his position of "party and judge" when a private company submitted his path request, which revealed the commercial process of the concurrent of SNCF….
(6) Coca-Cola use this systems for some store : each bottle sold is registered and when the stock decline, the firm supply automatically.
(7) Jeremy Rifkins often wrote in such a way, but ignores the legal responsibility and safety data transfers.

To see : logistics at Zeebrugge (Belgium)