Although rail freight markets within the EU have been open for a number of years, the modal share of intra-EU rail freight transport has slightly declined in the past decade. The industry’s stagnation can be explained partly by the existence of legal barriers restricting competition (including the track access regime, taxation, etc.), but also by problems of an operational and technical nature, which impact the overall capacity and performance of the sector.
The cost competitiveness and reliability of freight services need to be improved considerably if the sector is to meet the ambitious objectives set in the Transport White Paper in terms of developing rail freight: almost doubling the use of rail freight compared to 2005, achieving a shift of 30 % of road freight over 300 km to modes such as rail or waterborne transport by 2030, and of more than 50 % by 2050. Rail freight must be in a position to offer a cost-effective, attractive service to shippers that helps to shift freight away from the already-congested road network.
The challenge is twofold:
In order to secure and strengthen rail’s market position in current markets while at the same time enabling it to (re-)enter into new/lost market segments, investments in research and development must target the market segments where progress is attainable in the short term, and the market segments with significant growth potential in terms of transport volumes and revenue potential.
Different market segments can be identified, each with specific technical and operational characteristics. The first is the intermodal segment, which relies mainly on the use of containers/trailer trains. Continued growth is to be expected in this segment. Reliability, service characteristics and cost competitiveness can progress significantly here: with an increase in train length, better length utilisation, innovative rolling stock features for value added services, progress in the terminal operations (i.e. through synchronisation with train movements on the network and with the road mode in pre- and post-haulage), improved real-time information to customers and better data exchange between involved parties in the intermodal transport chain.
The second market segment is the wagon load/block train activity segment, which relies on the use of specific freight wagons. This segment has significantly declined in past years and its significant growth potential can only be fully exploited if a step change is made in terms of service quality and reliability. Revitalising the small volume market would call for industrialisation of production methods. Solutions such as automated coupling and decoupling, and tagging all wagons with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that are automatically readable would provide enormous potential for speeding up and reducing costs in train formation, and for improving the overall performance of wagonload services. Enabling technology is needed to achieve economies of scale on the long-distance legs of a wagonload system (e.g. through train-coupling and -sharing), and must be combined with new means of carrying out last-mile operations. Success also hinges on better integration of wagonload resources in information flows. Another area that should be exploited is the integrated production of wagonload and intermodal services.
What’s more, given that rail freight has an advantage over other modes when it comes to the transport of dangerous goods, it is also essential to identify and develop innovative solutions to make the carriage of dangerous goods by rail the obvious number one choice.
Taking into account the fierce competition with road transport, it is important that future rail freight solutions are developed to optimise the overall transport time; this includes cutting down on handling and set up times at marshalling yards and in terminals, and stepping up the average speed for rail freight operations (even including, for certain market segments, an increase of the top speed). All innovation activities should also ensure that rail freight is able to better operate in conjunction with passenger traffic, in order to maximise the utilisation of existing networks.
Furthermore, the freight sector should build on best practice from the passenger sector and from other modes, in terms of information, planning and monitoring systems.
Improving rail freight performance also implies addressing the critical issues of rail noise and the continued improvement of its environmental performance, e.g. through electrification/hybrid propulsion.
The ‘Fleet Digitalisation and Automation’ (TD 5.1) aims to improve strategic areas of rail freight transport by developing key technologies to enable a digital and automated rail freight system. TD 5.1 includes core topics like Condition-based Maintenance (CBM), Automatic Coupling, Freight Automatic Train Operation (ATO) and Connected Driver Advisory Systems (C-DAS). Further systemic topics e.g. automatic train preparation are subordinate topics included in these innovation fields.
The ‘Digital Transport management’ (TD 5.2) The aim of this TD is to develop freight solutions that are highly reliable and flexible, and that enable the optimisation of overall transport time, in particular by increasing the average speed for rail freight operations and by reducing handling and set up times at marshalling yards and in terminals taking into account the new automation technology, but also by ensuring that rail freight is able to better operate in conjunction with passenger traffic in order to maximise the utilisation of the existing network.
The main objective of the ‘Smart Freight Wagon Concepts’ (TD 5.3) is to produce technical demonstrations of the next generation of freight bogies and freight wagons, in order to prove their competitiveness and show that a rail freight option is equal to the freight market demands of the year 2020+, so that a change in modal split becomes feasible.
The ‘New Freight Propulsion Concepts’ (TD 5.4) The focus of this TD is on improving the overall performance of today’s locomotives by adding and integrating additional functionalities and technologies. Future locomotives will Provide extreme flexibility for operation in non-electrified and in electrified lines, Hybridization of locomotives offering electric traction for shunting operations / low speed operations etc, Feature remote control for distributed power, thus, allowing the increase of the train length up to 1500m and consequently improving the cost efficiency of rail transport,; Increase the operational efficiency by automating various activities such as train start-up, train preparation, start of mission, stabling and parking, generally shunting..
The main objective of the ‘Business analytics and implementation strategies’ (TD 5.5) This TD ensures that IP5 develops technologies in line with the market needs and with sound plans for introductions into the market. This is provided by migration plans for implementing new technology solutions on a large scale, identifying market segments and developing specifications and Key Performance Indicators for freight.
The ‘Indicative list of priority research and innovation activities’ in the draft Shift2Rail strategic Multi-Annual Action Plan is available in the Reference Documents > Shift2Rail JU Documents section.