Freight – Innovation Programme 5

Technologies for Sustainable & Attractive European Rail Freight

The Challenge

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:

  • to acquire a new service-oriented profile for rail freight services based on excellence in on-time delivery at competitive prices, interweaving its operations with other transport modes, addressing clientele needs by incorporating innovative value added services, among others;
  • to increase productivity, by addressing current operational and system weaknesses and limitations including interoperability issues, by finding cost-effective solutions to these problems, including optimisation of existing infrastructure, and by fostering technology transfer from other sectors into rail freight.

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.

IP5 Innovations and ambitions

Work in IP5 will be organised around the following Technical Demonstrators (TDs) covering all R&I areas indicated in the Shift2Rail Master Plan: Implementation Strategies and Business Analytics, Freight Electrification, Brake and Telematics, Access & Operations, Wagon Design, Novel Terminal, Hubs, Marshalling yards, Sidings and New Freight Propulsion Concepts, Autonomous Train Operation.

The main objective of the ‘Implementation Strategies and Business Analytics’ (TD 5.0) is provide guidance on implementing new technology solutions on a large scale (migration plan), and to efficiently allocate resources within the Innovation Programme, based on input from past and current research activities.

The ‘Freight Electrification, Brake and Telematics’ (TD 5.1) aims to improve strategic areas of rail transport by developing key components such as condition-based maintenance of locomotives and wagons, and wagon monitoring systems and telematics, as well as automatic coupling of wagons.

The ‘Access & Operations’ (TD 5.2) aims to improve service planning and operation, thereby supporting better utilisation of available capacity, by optimising access and operation of local hubs (e.g. marshalling yards and sidings) which are essential but cost-intensive subsystems for rail freight business.

The main objective of the ‘Wagon Design’ (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 ‘Novel Terminal, Hubs, Marshalling yards, Sidings’ (TD 5.4) has a twofold objective: on the one hand, to provide improved data gathering, steering, operation and coordination of intermodal transport with a terminal design that allows efficient change of transport modes; and on the other hand, the hybridisation of the legacy shunting fleet operating in marshalling yards and sidings by means of retrofitting.

The main objective of the ‘New Freight Propulsion Concepts’ (TD 5.5) is to provide more attractive rail freight services to the final customer, with competitive rail solutions maximising flexibility and efficiency while reducing the operating and maintenance costs. The focus of this TD will be on improving the overall performance of today’s locomotives by adding and integrating additional functionalities and technologies.

The ‘Autonomous train operation’ (TD 5.6) aims to actively pursue the objective of Autonomous Train Operation (ATO), realised progressively until 2030, for mainline freight operation and the underlying operations, in order to increase the railway’s competitiveness and to achieve operational efficiency gains and optimised resource utilisation.

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.