Radcliffe believes that rail freight is due a renaissance. Pointing to the decline between 1950 and the 1980’s brought about by the emergence of the tarmac alternative, in his opinion the pendulum swung too far and is only now correcting itself.

If Radcliffe’s theory is correct, his new service, several years in development, couldn’t arrive in the market at a better time. By allowing logistics firms and customers to better plan, utilise and track their goods over the rail network, Radcliffe hopes his FreightArranger can become a key tool in the due resurgence.

Radcliffe arrived as a founder of FreightArranger through a background in making things work, and is a relative newcomer to rail freight. He graduated from Liverpool University with a degree in law before joining the Royal Navy, which included afloat and ashore stints in logistics, human resources, engineering support, and policy.

He then trained as a management accountant and was appointed to the Defence Transport and Movements Agency, where he was responsible for improving costs management. It was there that he first discovered the potential cost advantages of rail freight compared to road, and calculated the necessary components to achieving such savings. At that point Radcliffe began scribbling the first designs of what would become FreightArranger. He could see that road freight was struggling under the rising burdens of fuel and labour costs and that there was scope for rail freight to recover lost market share. In 2010, Radcliffe won the Technology Strategy Board’s Informed Logistics competition, which was the catalyst for the launch of the business.

Radcliffe recalls: ‘FreightArranger came about as a sort of accident. In fact, the name was only invented about 18 months after we started work. I was helping colleagues with an innovative freight train concept, and we knew that it needed an integrated IT system to manage all aspects of train operation if it was to successfully break the mould of current freight train operations.

‘While applying for the Technology Strategy Board’s Informed Logistics prize, we discovered that we were more likely to succeed if our project helped all freight operating companies rather than just one, so that became a fundamental building block of FreightArranger, and is what we have delivered.’

Increasing intermodal freight

Following more than two years in development and testing, FreightArranger’s objective is simply to increase the use of intermodal rail freight, first in the UK and then in continental Europe. It is built on the belief that rail freight is attractive on the grounds of cost, environmental concerns and timing, but that users view it as more complicated to engage with than road haulage.

Specifically, where larger companies are able to use rail freight successfully, SME’s find it harder by virtue of having smaller freight volumes, and the lack of resources needed to invest in learning about how the system works. FreightArranger is specifically designed to simplify rail freight access by automating the search-quote-book process, simultaneously arranging short haul road haulage with the train, and tracking the container in transit. It is a web-based brokerage and tracking service, which makes it easy for consignors to use rail operations in the UK for freight flows as small as a single container.

Freight consignors use the system to make a container movement enquiry on a ‘postcode to postcode’ basis. FreightArranger does all the hard work by finding intermodal train capacity with suitable transit timings and appropriate gauge capability, checks terminal opening times and lift capability, and arranges any short-haul road transport for pre- and end-carriage. The algorithms which search for solutions are biased to find rail transits for all or part of the journey as appropriate.

FreightArranger handles all the complications of container types, routes, gauges and timetables behind the scenes so that consignors do not need to get involved in the complexities.

While in transit, FreightArranger gives real-time tracking information, on an enquiry and/or alert basis. Data is refreshed every five seconds, which compares to rival software update intervals of on the hour, or in some cases every four hours. The system also allows for self-customised alerts which could include, for example, a desktop or email alert due a set number of minutes before goods are expected to arrive, or a separate indicator if a train is running more than a certain amount of time behind schedule.

One of the big drivers for the service according to Radcliffe, ‘is the question we so often hear from forwarders: ‘Please tell me where my container is before my customer asks’. Our locator service stops goods going into a black hole and is available to customers and to the road haulier that is picking up the goods, making their time more efficiently spent too.

‘In the past, once a train left the terminal, consignors did not know where it was until it arrived. We have witnessed instances where businesses have remotely tracked their goods all the way through the supply chain, only for it to go completely off the radar as soon as it enters the rail system.’

FreightArranger can be used to fill unused capacity on block trains, acting as a sales agent to smaller companies at a lower cost and more efficiently than freight operating companies can do in-house. And it’s these ‘ones and twos’ of extra containers on a train that Radcliffe says is where the profit margin is. ‘You can lose a lot of money if you don’t have a full train on the move.’

Strong opinions on rail

Radcliffe has formed strong opinions of the industry he has joined. On HS2 he said: ‘The UK is already more congested than other developed nations. The population and economy – the two factors that determine demand for transport – are both forecast to grow. So it’s inevitable that, without investment, transport congestion will increase.

‘Unless we want to see economic recovery stifled by an inability to deliver goods, services and people on time, improving the transport network is essential. Doing nothing is not an option. ‘Rail freight makes sense over longer distances. That’s when it becomes the lower cost, lower carbon option. It isn’t stuck in traffic jams. It isn’t clogging our roads. It’s delivering straight to the heart of our cities without adding to the UK’s transport congestion issues. ‘Investment in the rail network – as part of an overall transport strategy that must also include road, air and sea – makes sense.’

However, while HS2 is the clear government favourite, it’s not the only rail improvement option according to Radcliffe. ‘Alternatives could be a large, conventional rail scheme, or multiple small projects targeted towards removing inefficiencies across the network. I’m not saying HS2 isn’t the answer – it may still be. But my concern is that in the ongoing political argument, we’re losing objectivity.

‘Good decision making stems from good data. That solid, objective data has been noticeably absent from all sides of the discussion to date. When what’s at stake is the economic growth of the country, the future of our transport network should be driven by sound reasoning, not rhetoric.’

Radcliffe believes the rail industry itself is working hard to bring customers back. ‘There are three elements in the discussion: Network Rail, the freight operating companies and the aggregators. Network Rail is investing in the strategic rail network, the routes coming out of the ports. There are ongoing gauge enhancements, which allow taller boxes, meaning you can get more inside. NR is working on the bottlenecks, improving signalling and junctions across the country and the Foc’s are trying to run longer trains – Freightliner now has 30 wagon trains, where the previous maximum was 24 or 26. It’s improving the scalability and reducing the costs, especially where running locomotives and employing drivers is concerned.

‘The aggregators are designing new services for domestic intermodal flows, and even the property companies are getting involved by building new rail freight terminals – at least they are trying – however a lot are being held up by interminable and expensive planning procedures.’

Engaging retail customers

Each element of the rail freight chain is engaging with retail customers, which Radcliffe says is hugely important. There’s a demand for reducing costs, improving carbon footprint and securing a good customer service reputation.

‘The Freight Transport Association (FTA) has asked retailers what they want (see page 65), and it’s a joined-up road and rail service. They don’t need the extra complications, and happily that’s exactly where we come in.’

In the FTA’s On Track! report, Chris MacRae, rail freight policy manager, said that having spoken to eight major high street retailers, he had managed to compile a list of common but solvable niggles within the industry. These included more flexible timetables and services, more rail freight terminals, improved visibility of costs and the chance to reduce them, and a consistent measure of the environmental impact of rail.

At a Rail Freight Council meeting, FreightArranger was discussed as a method of addressing at least some of these concerns. Said Radcliffe: ‘Supermarkets use primary and secondary logistics. That’s port to national distribution centre, and distribution centre to shelf. With our system, they can buy additional space. But they could also do small volumes to regional distribution centres too, instead of going via the national distribution centre, which is another leg of the journey.

‘The store delivery modules are also rail compatible with our system. One of our developments is to enable regional manufacturers to put goods on to containers to go back into the national distribution centres.’

Rail ‘A friendly place’

So far, Radcliffe has taken well to the industry he found himself in by chance. ‘It’s a friendly place,’ he said. ‘You get the feeling that railway people take pride in their industry, and are keen to explain it to you so that you can understand it. That said, it is highly conservative with a small ‘c’ and is slow to change. It suffers from being very process driven and from having a lowish net profit margin. Innovation is inherently risky, and it is only the higher margin businesses which can afford to take the risks.’

FreightArranger has been warmly received by the industry too. The system earned second prize in the Rail Freight Customer Challenge and the 2013 Rail Customer Experience Competition, which came with a £20,000 cheque. It was one of 16 finalists chosen from 111 entrants in the competition organised by the Enabling Innovation Team.

The prize money was set aside to be invested in further software development, enhancing the enquiry and booking element to make the process even simpler and faster.

A resurgence in rail freight

Radcliffe and the FreightArranger team are keen to continually look to the future. ‘Things are looking positive for rail. Entrepreneurial companies want to be involved. They see that this is where profit is.

‘Our message is stimulating the interest both of companies that are actively using rail, and also those that aren’t but are at least interested. What we’re looking to combat is the view that rail is more complex than road haulage. What we are up against is that, with road, you only need to know where it goes from and when; where it’s going, and when it’s expected to get there.’

The good news is that there is a hunger for an effective rail freight system.

‘Rail is flexible’, said Radcliffe. ‘There’s a structural transport cost in the UK. These days, ports are very significant. The manufacturers used to be based in our cities, such as Birmingham, but a lot of that has gone abroad and now we all need access to the ports.

‘Unfortunately, the origins of the road system predate this change in our economy. What we are seeing are miles of jams along the distribution corridors to and from the ports into the centres of consumption. Rail is the answer. It is addressing the deep-sea routes, but also needs to do more on the domestic intermodal front, which is where both the problems and the opportunities lie. It simply isn’t possible for the road network to develop itself fast enough to cope with demand.

‘I think the obvious answer is a resurgence in rail freight. I think it would be good for the economy, and it would obviously be great for FreightArranger too.’