What’s in store for rail freight in 2023

By Richard Bailey, Technical Director, BaileyRail & Logistics

As 2023 begins there’s a buzz in the air for rail freight. It feels as though the industry is on the edge of an exciting decade where digitalisation and innovations will play a key role in propelling the industry forward.

Technological advances in recent years have made many things possible for rail freight and now is the time for the industry to seize these opportunities for greater growth.

Digitalisation is something that is taking place across the board and, not surprisingly, the rail freight industry is keen to pursue it. Internal operator systems, national systems and the role out of the European Train Control System (ETCS) and Traffic Management are a first of their kind in the UK and will allow for more a robust, reliable and safe service for rail freight customers.

Next year also looks set to see fleet fitment of in-cab ETCS. In fact, this autumn the first work began to install the latest version of ETCS to a UK freight locomotive which marked the beginning of fitment to freight vehicles across the country as part of the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP).

After several years of design and planning’s DB Cargo UK’s Class 66 locomotive (66039) was delivered to the Electro-Motive Diesel’s engineering workshop in Doncaster for the technological transformation to take place. This is a significant milestone in the roll out of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and is the blueprint for the roll-out to Class 66 locomotives during 2023 and beyond.

Also expect to see in 2023, business change plans and operational readiness to be progressed as the ECDP delivers Tranche 2, Operational Migration Overlay in 2024. This covers the first stretch of the mainline from Welwyn to Hitchin and requires thousands of drivers to be trained.

We all know that rail freight is cleaner than road, making it the obvious alternative mode of transport. But with this brings an onus on the rail freight industry to continue to prove that it can provide realistic, reliable, affordable and sustainable options to customers who currently use road for their logistics.

We must be mindful that road is making great strides in reducing its carbon footprint too and rail has to keep on innovating and pushing to keep its leading role in this area by continuing to work on emissions reduction. Whether this is by trialling alternative fuels to diesel, moving to electrified options or introducing measuring and reporting metrics that monitor emissions with action plans for improvements.

In March the UK’s first rail electrification trial for rail freight terminals was held in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, which is adjacent to the Midland Mainline. It became the first in the UK to demonstrate an innovative overhead electrification system, which could spell the end for diesel on electrified rail routes.

The Decarbonisation and Electrification of Freight Terminals (DEFT) project, funded by the Department for Transport and Innovate UK, saw project partners Furrer+Frey GB, Tarmac and GB Railfreight demonstrate a new way of decarbonising rail and also lessening freight’s impact on passenger journeys.

Because freight trains are typically loaded and unloaded from above, the use of high voltage overhead cables is prevented on mainline railways, which means diesel is still relied on for the trains to move in and out of terminals. Engineers from Furrer+Frey designed an innovative Moveable Overhead Conductor system to supply electricity to the locomotives so that they could safely move away once the train was in place and return when the train needed to move again.

This is just one example of the many innovations that are taking place across the industry.

So, I believe the setting is right for more customers and sectors to be attracted to moving their goods by rail in 2023. The need for companies, large or small, to reduce carbon emissions by 2030 means that supply chains and logistics must be reviewed as this plays a huge part in any business’s carbon footprint.

The Tesco and DRS partnership has been a great example of how supermarkets can successfully and reliably transport chilled produce by rail.

The supermarket giant launched its first refrigerated rail service, operated by DRS, in late 2021. This year the service, which carries chilled goods from Tilbury to Coatbridge twice a day, seven days a week, has won two awards, with judges describing it as a ‘step change for rail’.

The train travels a 415-mile route using DRS’s Class 88 bi-mode electric locomotives, which can run on electricity and produce zero exhaust and greenhouse gas emissions. This service takes a whopping 17,000 containers off the roads every year, saving Tesco 7.3 million road miles and almost 9,000 tonnes of CO2e.

Yet another example of the huge benefits rail freight can bring and I expect to see more customers turn their attention to the industry throughout this year and beyond.

At BaileyRail & Logistics we spend a lot of time with our clients talking through the rail freight environment, what they should expect as a customer and how they can negotiate flexibility in plan so that train delivery times fit best with their schedules. Understanding and optimising the available rail connection terminals is key to giving an efficient and reliable service across different modes of transport.

In all, 2023 has all the hallmarks of being a year to provide huge opportunities for rail freight to grow and to strive forward through innovations and digitalisation that offer customers an attractive and beneficial alternative to road transport.

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