Interconnectivity and modal shift have been key phrases that many of us across the rail industry have heard in recent years

A better-connected transport network has the potential to reap a range of benefits for both the rail industry and the wider community, from increased efficiencies and cost savings to green advantages and generating new opportunities within the local area. It is a no-brainer to implement now, rather than later. However, how can this be achieved and what must the industry do to take advantage of the benefits increased interconnectivity and modal shift provide?

The modal shift between road to rail
Rail freight contributes almost £2.5 billion to the economy, playing a big part in reducing congestion and emissions and is more environmentally friendly than road. According to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), every tonne of freight transported by rail produces 76 per cent less emissions compared to road and each freight train removes 76 lorries from our roads. This in turn reduces carbon emissions and congestion, freeing up capacity across the transport network and improving air quality.

The green benefits of rail freight are being driven heavily by the Department for Transport (DfT) with incentive schemes such as Modal Shift Revenue Support (MSRS) – a £20 million grant, which freight carriers can bid for a share of to support the modal shift to rail. A new year presents new opportunities, and it is vital that suppliers understand and acknowledge the benefits that freight transport plays in transporting goods effectively, efficiently, and more sustainably, across the UK and beyond.

Embracing innovation to make a change
Digitalisation in rail freight is key to supporting the shift from road to rail. It helps to speed up the way the network operates and reduces personnel costs. Not so long ago, only office-based staff in the freight industry would be able to access system accounts online. Now, depot-based staff can obtain up-to-date digital information to perform their jobs more easily. These changes have been reflected in wider attitudes to technology within the sector, with IT no longer seen as an add-on but as an intrinsic part of running a freight operation.

While digitalisation is essential, innovation extends much further than apps and websites – applying fresh thinking and inventing physical solutions to solve practical problems is just as important.

There is certainly no shortage of innovation within freight, and there has been a huge shift in progress in terms of uptake of systems. For the freight industry to evolve moving forward, there are several technologies that will become increasingly important and these need to work in tandem with new skillsets entering from other industries.

Looking ahead
The publication of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail in 2021 signalled a step change for the future of modal shift, defining clear steps for the rail sector in order to embrace the opportunities of this shift.

The positive endorsement of rail freight in the report cajoled freight operator members of the RDG to call on government to boost the economy and protect the wider environment, by adopting policies that will support the shift in freight from road to rail.

Two years on, the drive to make this a reality is still in motion. However, more needs to be done.

The key to this is ensuring there is a consistent dialogue across the industry, from policy makers to operators. Continuous collaboration and engagement will nurture the opportunities for change and identify the actions individual parties must play in bringing the modal shift to life.

3Squared looks forward to being part of those conversations and continuing to support this change through its pioneering innovative solutions, such as the BulkSmart software which is helping SCS Logistics plan complex operations as part of the HS2 tunnel boring project, taking thousands of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) off the road as spoil is moved by rail and not road.