Image: Antwerp Port Authority

Algorithms to optimise rail freight on the TEN-T network

Antwerp Port Authority

ePIcenter is an international technology and innovation project to improve the efficiency of freight flows and reduce congestion in the European TEN-T network. Advanced logistics scheduling algorithms are a key focus to optimise rail freight. The project is a collaboration between 36 industry, technology and research organisations from Europe, North America, South America and China. The ePIcenter project runs until the end of 2023, and some early solutions and results are expected at the end of this year.

ePIcenter is coordinated by Port of Antwerp and involves freight companies DHL China Rail, PKP Cargo, Den Hartogh and Beijing Trans Eurasia International Logistics. Partners in Duisport, Hamburg and Algeciras also represent key nodes on the TEN-T network. It does not only consider European operations but also international connectivity such as the New Silk Road rail links. The project is supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Making the best use of infrastructure

“The project is not so much about the direct management of the infrastructure, but more about optimising freight flows to make the best use of existing infrastructure and capacity”, explains Julian Stephens, Technical Development Manager at MJC², one of the partners of ePIcenter. “For example, at an operational level, this means finding the best route through the network. But on a more strategic level, it provides a tool to analyse the impact of new connectivity; for example, if a line was to be upgraded or extended, or if a terminal has increased capacity.”

ePIcenter partner TIS, based in Portugal, is analysing the TEN-T network, with the input of the rest of the consortium. This will lead to a report to the European Commission describing recommendations for improvements to the TEN-T network. This will take into account the expected impact and benefits of new technology such as the optimisation algorithms ePIcenter aims to develop.

Synchromodal scheduling algorithms

Developing new logistics scheduling algorithms that optimise container movements through the rail network is MJC²’s role in ePIcenter. This includes integration with other modes, focussing on opportunities to reduce congestion and increase throughput in terminals by synchronised planning and replanning of movements.

These algorithms allow companies to deal with uncertainty and disruption in the supply chain in a much faster and more efficient way. They absorb information received from real-time tracking and visibility solutions and automatically find new, optimised logistics plans and transport resource schedules. Operationally this enables synchromodal planning of end-to-end cargo movements, dynamically and automatically routing and allocating freight to different modes, services and transport resources.

Towards the Physical Internet

The synchromodal algorithms contemplated by ePIcenter are applicable to current logistics operations. However, with an eye on the future, they also take a major stride towards the concept of ‘Physical Internet’. The Physical Internet is a future vision of logistics, in which freight moves around the transport network in an analogous way to data flowing through the internet.

In the Physical Internet, rail companies, terminals and all logistics service providers are the “cables” and “routers”, while the containers are the equivalent of the internet’s “data packets”. Freight flows through the Physical Internet in intelligent modular containers (known as π-containers), which are automatically routed via synchromodal logistics algorithms through the multimodal network. “The Physical Internet in its ‘ultimate’ form might be 20 years away, but many projects around the world, including ePIcenter are taking steps towards it already by developing some of the key technologies that will be required”, explains Stephens.

Optimising efficiency

“Although ePIcenter is working on futuristic ideas like the Physical Internet, the technologies have a more immediate and tangible benefit in the form of reduced costs, congestion and environmental impact”, says Stephens. “For example, the synchromodal logistics software allows logistics organisations and shippers to manage their own operations more efficiently.”

For example, the ever-increasing volume of rail freight arriving in Europe via the New Silk Road connections across Central Asia presents new questions and challenges in terms of how this cargo should be routed and transported. The balance of flows within Europe is changing, and the ePIcenter project will help optimise routes and determine where new capacity may be needed.

Emerging technology

Although very important, synchromodality is just one topic considered by the ePIcenter consortium. The scope of the project is very broad, including new freight transport and handling technologies such as hyperloop, autonomous vehicles and modular containers. Advanced data sharing and visibility solutions for global supply chains will be developed, as well as new algorithms and methodologies to understand better the impact of technology and geo-political changes on the rail network in Europe.

“The hyperloop work is looking at feasibility, technical requirements and possible benefits of this very interesting technology. ePIcenter is also considering how it could best integrate with existing modes, and which types of freight and movements would be most suitable. Specific tests will be done for a prototype use case in Germany, led by Hochschule Emden-Leer, although the results are expected to be applicable to many other scenarios.”

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Author: Esther Geerts

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Algorithms to optimise rail freight on the TEN-T network |