Our big cities are changing rapidly – with populations continuing to grow, especially in the North and the Midlands
This means demand for deliveries to city centres is increasing, and with it greater strain on supply chains. There is a growing realisation that cities need to be fit for people to live in, and a major obstacle is the high level of air pollution, much of it a result of transport activities.
A number of regional transport plans have recognised this issue, such as Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan – it is clear that willingly, or under duress, the logistics sector is going to have to clean up its act.
The make or break factor for many rail-based supply chains is the final mile delivery, getting the product from the train to the customer. There is now a viable range of reliable, electrically powered road vehicles that can do this.
So, it is possible to imagine a rail-based solution that can deliver transformational change in city centre deliveries. Electrically hauled trains delivering to a city centre cross dock for distribution by electrically powered vehicles – this is a game changer, which will drive a dramatic reduction in congestion and improve air quality.
In this vision, city centre deliveries will originate at a supermarket’s distribution centre (DC) or a multi-user consolidation centre. Rail connected DCs will be located outside the city where there is less pressure on land use and where labour costs are lower. The DC will consolidate deliveries, on roll cages or pallets, for a number of city centre stores and these will be loaded to trains for the trunk haul.
Further development of suitable rail vehicles would help improve city centre deliveries; potential options include conventional vans, curtain sided swap bodies, freight multiple units or perhaps conversion of redundant passenger vehicles. More innovative solutions are possible, a technology for quickly converting a passenger coach for freight delivery has recently won funding from the Department of Transport.
Many rail routes in to our larger cities are already electrified, and the Government has stated its ambition to withdraw diesel only trains by 2040, with Rail Minister Jo Johnson announcing the Government’s intention to totally phase out diesel in a speech in February. A vision for delivery by electrically hauled trains has been set out by Worth (2018) and indeed this vision is being delivered today, with regular electrically hauled freight trains on the West Coast Main Line.
At the city centre cross dock the roll cages and pallets will be transferred to electrically powered road vehicles for the final mile delivery. The cross-dock facility could be purpose built, or it could be located at a passenger station, making use of spare capacity late at night and early in the morning.
Using road vehicles for just the final mile makes it practical, and economical, to use smaller vehicles which are more manoeuvrable and easier to park in restricted city centres. Electric vehicles are also quieter, making night time deliveries more acceptable. This electric vision is not limited to retail or business to business deliveries. It could easily be adopted for parcels with final delivery by electric vehicles or bikes.
So, there is a winning combination available; trunk haul by electrically hauled trains to an inner city cross dock for onward final mile delivery by electric vehicles. The technology is already in place, a trial for a parcels carrier to London’s Euston station was held in 2014.
A number of rail industry players are considering this concept and we can expect further trials. This electric vision will deliver reduced congestion, less pollution and enhanced quality of life for city residents. A mutually beneficial sustainable solution for city centre deliveries.
Chris Polack CEng is Director of Bootham Network Solutions