Parcels as passengers – the latest UK innovation

All aboard, as long as you are properly labeled and someone is waiting to pick you up at your destination station. The latest light logistics ideas propose that the sharp decline in commuter passenger traffic is the opportunity the parcels industry has been waiting for. A new report from the Rail Innovation Group published on Tuesday 25 May explores the potential for expanding the use of the existing rail network to facilitate the faster and more sustainable delivery of smaller and medium sized parcels.

The Rail Innovation Group is an independent association supporting new ways of operating within the rail industry. RIG has published a report, entitled Parcels as Passengers, proposing to make productive use of passenger rolling stock and recently vacated network capacity to support a new model of light logistics and parcels. The sector was almost completely lost to the rail freight industry in the 1990s, but some market leaders are seeking to turn niche operations into big business for the future.

Much faster by rail

Already it is possible for customers to receive and dispatch individual parcels at stations, as logistics companies seek to exploit the central nature of main line stations. However, tThere is the opportunity for rail to provide long distance routes, which are much faster than the road network”, says the RIG. They say that this could then be complimented with the use of e-cargo bikes at each end point for the last mile mile delivery and pick up in towns and cities. The RIG argues that this is already being done in some areas of the country, notably by companies like InterCity RailFreight. They say there is potential to expand this approach across the wider rail sector.

A courier loads parcel on to GWR 800 series train. Using capacity on the passenger network is the prime objective of the report (Image: RIG)

“Innovation is all about considering new ideas and ways of working”, said Liam Henderson, the chair of the Rail Innovation Group, at the launch of the report. “Today we are promoting our expansive passenger rail network as part of the national distribution system, offering reliable routes, competitive journey times, reduced air pollution, and unrivalled local hubs. At a time when society is ever more concerned about the environment and our shared future, we’re looking to our existing national assets for sustainable facilities and local economic opportunities.”

Meeting net zero targets

Commenting on the proposals raised in the report, Alan Braithwaite, the chair of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport’s Freight and Logistics Policy Group said that rail will be a central plank of meeting net zero targets. “That will require innovation in freight and logistics to create and connect new networks. The CILT’s Freight and Logistics Policy Group is constantly scanning for innovations and parcels as passengers is one as it brings significant potential to make our cities more liveable while improving customer experience.”

Phil Read has clear plans for Varamis, and would like to see the company grow to be a spine of the parcels and light goods network in the UK

Among those innovators on the sidelines, Phil Read, the managing director of Varamis Rail, said his company is fully supportive of the push from Rail Innovation Group. “We believe the rail industry will play as the UK looks to hit all its Net Zero targets over the next 30 years”, he said. “Changing mindsets, embracing both technology and change within the industry can be challenging, but Varamis Rail is looking towards groups like RIG to give our new express rail freight operations the connectivity that will ensure we are always at the forefront of new methods, new innovation, and reinvigorating an express parcels market last seen on the railway with such regularity over 20 years ago”.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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