Britain has been at the heart of international trade for centuries.
Today, our rail freight industry is a critical enabler of this continued success story. Having grown by 80 per cent in the decades since privatisation, it now provides the transport backbone for £30 billion of goods each year.
It’s a strong record, but the industry recognises it can and must go further. Only around one in four containers coming into our major ports continue their journey onwards by rail – yet we know every freight train used takes more than 30 lorries off our congested road network. And whilst the growth in global trade and domestic economic activity suggests a positive outlook for railfreight, we know that railfreight’s customer base is being driven by intense global competition to increase efficiency and agility in every part of their supply chain.
In short, we need the capacity for more trains, better connections, and greater convenience for rail freight customers. The challenge, though, is how to create new opportunities to connect goods to markets when the rail network is already congested and competition for investment is intense.
Evidence is growing that the answer is digital. We know from international experience that replacing traditional lineside signalling – the biggest constraint on our network’s capacity – with its modern digital equivalent allows more trains to run closer together safely. For example, the Australian Rail Track Corporation is preparing for a doubling of freight demand in a country that already transports £50 million of raw material every day through its Advanced Train Management System, with the potential to triple capacity on the existing network.
Early analysis exploring the case to adopt digital signalling and Traffic Management in the UK is showing promising results. Initial analysis on a key mixed traffic route suggests that digital train control could unlock up to 40 per cent more capacity through headway reduction, and improve the reliability of the railway by up to 35 per cent. And to further the case for change, the capital cost for meeting demand via a digital solution could be up to 35 per cent lower than via a more conventional means.
These are promising findings. But more physical capacity for freight in future won’t help if it’s not also accompanied with the planning flexibility to make it available in the right place at the right time.
That’s why data is so important to achieving the benefits of a more digital railway. New digital tools that use better data about demand to drive smarter timetabling decisions will be needed to help position freight paths where our fast-moving economy needs them the most. This would be a big step from today, where many freight paths are predicated on operating characteristics and technical parameters established in the 1970s.
The potential of modern data- driven, decision-support tools goes beyond timetabling. It will be crucial to strategic investment decisions in the years ahead.
Creating a “single version of the truth” about the capability and geography of the network and its assets – which is being delivered by Network Rail’s ORBIS programme, new options will be created to make more effective decisions that will unlock optimal train weights, lengths and axle weights.
All of us own part of the answer for how we meet the challenges for freight through a more digital railway. It’s an agenda that will demand not just new technology, but business and behaviour change at terminals, in cab, on track and beyond.
That’s why Network Rail and its stakeholders in the public and private sectors are supporting a new initiative, the Digital Railway programme, to forge the whole-industry strategy needed to achieve it. Change won’t happen overnight, but important early analysis has given the initiative the green-light to start development of concrete reform proposals.
We’re looking forward to working with everyone in the freight industry to help ensure we seize the fantastic opportunity that this represents to support the GB economy in the years ahead.
Written by Paul McMahon, Network Rail freight director