How to encourage freight customers to shift from road to rail

The environmental case for rail freight is compelling. Moving one tonne of freight by rail produces around a quarter of the carbon emissions compared to transporting it by lorries along the country’s congested motorways.

With a single freight train removing up to 129 HGV journeys, according to a 2023 Rail Partners report, it’s clear that rail freight is the future.

There’s growing recognition from policymakers that sustainable transport means a shift towards rail. For the first time ever, the Office of Rail and Road has set targets for rail freight growth across Great Britain of 7.5% for England and Wales, and 8.7% for Scotland over the next five years.

However, some businesses perceive rail freight as a complex, unwieldy and uncompetitive option for fulfilling orders and moving goods. Operators can challenge these perceptions by using technology to make rail freight the mode of choice.

  1. Improve short term planning

Freight planning can be challenging because it’s difficult to find a new path on the network at short notice. Digital technology makes it much easier for operators to plan a freight service by identifying available paths which can be bid for directly from Network Rail through the Very Short-Term Planning (VSTP) process.

  1. Unlock hidden capacity on the network

Finding a path to run an additional freight train is also difficult because rail timetables show little free capacity on the network. However, our research shows that around 45% of those timetabled freight paths are not used. Predictive analytics based on historical timetables and operational data can help operators identify unused paths on the network which would otherwise go to waste. This pioneering technology enables operators to find fast, effective solutions for their customers.

  1. Give customers more flexibility

Many logistics customers don’t consider rail a flexible enough option, but to be more competitive, rail freight needs to change minds. Technology can now help operators make sure the unused paths they identify on the network don’t conflict with other services. So, if an operator finds an existing path that’s available but it doesn’t exactly suit their customer’s needs, the operator can adjust the departure time or build in breaks to fit around other scheduled services.

  1. Respond swiftly to customers’ needs

Rail operators need to grow their customer base, and this means targeting customers with a range of different profiles. Better visibility of data can help operators to respond more quickly and cost-effectively which appeals to customers of all sizes and budgets. For instance, a tool which can identify space on partially filled wagons could support better planning for customers with last-minute orders or smaller loads.

  1. Provide a virtual booking system

Logistic firms are increasingly looking for Amazon style order tracking. Operators can respond to customer demand for greater visibility with virtual booking systems which allow customers to place rail freight orders online and access accurate departure and arrival times. This simplifies the ordering process and helps customers plan and manage their own business commitments.

  1. Offer accurate progress updates

Businesses with complex logistics requirements need live updates on the movement of their containers, but what happens on the yard can remain a bit of a mystery to a freight customer. Some operators provide customers with an app which enables them to view the number and locations of the wagons where their containers are carried. The app can also update customers on the loading of the wagons and confirm when their load is ready to go.

  1. Manage disruption on the network

Late deliveries can make or break a business in today’s competitive environment. If there’s a tree blocking the track or the overhead lines are down, getting that information to the control team in real time enables them to make the right decisions, fast. Digital communication allows the control team to notify the customer of the likely length of delay, while real time alerts assist control teams in identifying capacity on another train or taking a different route to the destination.

  1. Carry out performance analysis

Rail freight operators can learn from today to prepare for the future. By analysing data on why incidents happen and how they affect their customers, operators can identify solutions to reduce incidents and minimise their impact. Operators can also use data on the relationship between capacity and demand to anticipate and meet their customers’ evolving needs.

The rail freight sector is well placed to grasp the opportunities presented by the decarbonisation agenda, and with digital technology and expertise, rail can deliver a customer-focused, competitive and sustainable option for the business world.

To find out more about how digital technology can drive growth in rail freight, with insight from leading voices in the industry, download our eBook: How digital transformation can shape the future of rail.

Share this page: