Nigel Day, Engineering Director at VTG Rail, explores the technological advancements being made in freight…

Innovation is one of the key drivers of growth in the rail freight sector, making it cheaper, more efficient and more accessible to a wider customer base. It often struggles however to get those new ideas turned into commercial realities.

The rail freight sector excels in developing creative and practical ways of improving efficiency and delivering results for customers, but the implementation of innovative ideas and trials could be dramatically improved by better collaboration between Network Rail, ORR, DfT, the freight operating companies and businesses like VTG.

Building the railway of tomorrow, one that works for all its stakeholders and helps cut carbon emissions across the UK supply chain, will not only take continually enhanced operations, but much greater levels of support from government and a new drive to bring these components together.

We need a transformation in approach and it should be all we ever really talk about. Like efficiency gains and greater cost savings, game-changing innovation doesn’t just happen in a silo, it’s a constant process of cross-company collaboration and scrutinizing problems from multiple angles for mutual benefit.

Government has been positive about supporting the sector and acknowledges the vital role of freight to ‘improve everyday lives’ and ‘strengthen our economy’. George Freeman MP, newly appointed Minister for the Future of Transport, has a remit to drive transport innovation. In a letter to industry in October, he wrote: ‘Our freight sector is the backbone of the UK economy, supporting over 2.5 million jobs and contributing £124 billion to the economy. Looking ahead, the weight of goods transported by freight is expected to increase by 50 per cent at the same time as technological innovation promises to unlock even more productivity and growth. If we align our Research and Development procurement and regulatory framework right, I believe we have a golden opportunity to help ensure we make our world leading freight sector even stronger.’

Earlier this year the government also promised £48 billion for modernising the network over the next five years.

Back in June the then Transport Secretary Andrew Jones MP announced a £7.8 million innovation fund, in collaboration with Innovate UK, to bring new ideas onto the railway that included drones to inspect track damage, a sound-bending wall to cut noise pollution and plans for the first testing of a hydrogen-powered passenger train. Network Rail has also been spearheading the push toward a digital railway revolution but these things mainly exist separately with no overall cross-industry plan for bringing the sector together.

A changing rail freight sector

Since the sudden decline in coal volumes in 2015, the overall amount of freight moved on the UK rail network has remained fairly steady, with some sectors like construction and intermodal now seeing an upturn. VTG’s introduction of new tank wagons carrying aviation fuel, box and hopper wagons for aggregates and more Ecofrets for the maritime intermodal sector bear witness to these changes. We have always prided ourselves on being innovative, both in the design of new wagons and also in recycling existing ones to cope with changes in the marketplace and best meet customer demand.

When the decline in coal movements for the electricity supply industry became apparent, we spearheaded the move to find a way to make relatively new coal wagons suitable for the efficient movement of (much higher density) aggregates by shortening them and reducing the volume. This award-winning innovation has since become the benchmark for the industry with hundreds of wagons having gone through the same process.

We all know that rail freight in this country is under-utilised, but it has a crucial role to play in the UK’s drive to reduce carbon emissions. Continued investment in both technical and operational innovation is critical if we are to eventually become the zero-carbon economy everyone talks about.

Despite traditional bulk volumes dropping, rail’s overall market share of haulage is set to continue to increase, doubling by 2050, so we need to act now to be ready to meet customer demand for the future.

A key component of cutting greenhouse gas emissions is down to data and how it is gathered and utilised. From freight’s point of view, wagons present a huge opportunity in the future for track analysis and carbon reduction. VTG has around 1,000 wagons currently in use with RFID tags on the UK network and it will only grow as customers continue to see the full benefits. The latest generation of RFID technology in particular has a lot of potential uses in rail freight. With more measuring systems deployed on strategic corridors, such as at the Port of Southampton, the benefits are huge. VTG’s GPS ‘Connect’ wagon tracking system is another example of a privately funded technology with potentially massive benefits for the whole rail sector.

VTG recently signed a contract with Yellow Rail to help support the roll out of its innovative Railathe, a mobile wheel reprofiling service that has the potential to save operators a lot of time and money in the future. It involves the on-site re-profiling of wheels without the need to remove the wheelsets on the vehicle supporting its faster return to service. The issue of wheel damage impacts operators across the rail freight sector, particularly this time of year, and can have a significant effect on customer service, reduced availability and involving, in some cases, complicated plans to move and resolve the vehicles. This issue of availability is crucial to building the confidence that the sector needs to continue modal shift, particularly in intermodal transport.

Wagon mounted ‘WSP’ systems (the equivalent to ABS on a truck or a car) are another technology which exists ‘on the drawing board’ but needs support to see it fitted to rail freight vehicles on a widescale basis. However, if this support was provided, the benefits to the operation of the rail sector both in terms of minimising disruption and reducing infrastructure damage could be substantial.

The rail freight sector is on something of a tough journey right now but there are some very exciting things happening. As new innovations come online, rail freight becomes cheaper and more customers start using it. We ultimately need greater support for those game changers that are working tirelessly to enhance rail’s capability and it should be up to government to lead this support and enhance rail freight’s competitiveness for the future.

About VTG

VTG rail is the leading independent rail freight wagon provider in the UK and Europe.

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Nigel Day is Engineering Director responsible for the performance, quality, costs and safety of more than 4,000 rail freight wagons.