Artificial intelligence for greener rail: is this the future?

For the biggest part, rail freight is already the greenest mode of transportation. It is also the flagship for EU green goals like the Fit for 55 package introduced recently. What else is there to be done, and how can technology and consumer consciousness play a role in that?

For Transmetrics, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform with the mission to optimise transport planning and maintenance, rail freight’s objectives break down to three things: capacity maximisation, route efficiency, and consumer targeting.

As Marc Meyer, Chief Commercial Officer at Transmetrics explained to Railfreight.com, rail has been unchanged for 200 years now. It is already green, but integrating smart technologies like AI can upscale it and transform it into a transport leader.

Can logistics cope with green goals?

Since it is active in rail, road and sea transport, Transmetrics has a complete picture of how global logistics work. Transport currently has some of the most destructive processes globally, which is why initiatives like the Fit for 55 package introduced by the EU push towards a greener future with fewer emissions. Even though transportation is a pretty slow industry and might need more than eight years to acquire a greener profile, the Fit for 55 package is realistic. It could have a substantial impact, as long as the economic aspect for companies is also considered.

Stop shipping air

For rail specifically, the current situation is not scalable. Rail logistics processes are the same for many years now, and there is a need to adopt new technologies that will allow them to evolve. AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) could be two very good examples of these new technologies. By using AI and IoT, rail freight logistics will be able to streamline their operations and make them more efficient.

How would that be possible? With capacity maximisation and better route planning. Capacity maximisation means, first of all, stopping shipping empty containers. Instances of trains reaching a destination full but returning empty are frequent. This practice is harmful both for the economy and the environment since these trains travel carrying just air. AI can assist logistics providers and freight forwarders to distribute containers when and where needed. Additionally, it can track the optimal route to travel between two destinations.

Take a look at how new and smart technologies could work

Making the most of what we have

These technologies will not transform rail to the core but will help it scale up its services. Meyer underlined that rail currently is the best mode of transport when it comes to speed and environmental impact. It cannot improve anything else apart from what it already does. One way to do it is by using demand forecasts to allow the proper distribution of available trains and containers where needed. Moreover, becoming even faster and expanding railway lines is also imperative.

Using high-speed trains for rail freight transport is an option that the industry should not overlook. High-speed equipment is already produced, and the technology is already used by passenger trains. Lately, HHLA also presented a hyperloop rail freight project that could transform the overland transport of containers in Europe. In theory, said Meyer, you could even let AI programs drive high-speed trains in the future with automated processes based on route availability and demand. According to Meyer, the tools and willingness are there, and many rail freight companies and logistics providers look at these options. The industry is open. Now it is just a matter of decisions.

Building support networks

One of rail freight’s primary issues is that trains have limited reach. They travel between specific destinations, while the last-mile distribution of products takes place with other transport modes, like trucks. However, the industry should not perceive it as a loss. In contrast, it should invest in it. Currently, many logistics companies use electric trucks for last-mile operations, while for smaller loads, they can even use bicycles.

Using the already green background that rail has and investing in this kind of product distribution to customers is ideal for decarbonising the whole supply chain. Building a support network that will allow the optimal cooperation of different transport modes with automated processes sounds like a plan for the future. Combined and intermodal transport is already doing that to a great degree. Nevertheless, with the push for decarbonising other modes of transportation, rail freight could become a leading force and bring all of them together.

Focus on customer experience

Last but not least comes the customer experience aspect. It might be different from AI technologies and network building processes, but it is a leading trend in transportation, according to Meyer. By customer experience, Meyer defines the cultural shift in the consumer audience and the demand for green production of goods and green transport. It is becoming gradually important for people to know that the goods reaching their homes have the less possible impact on the environment. On top of that, consumers are also willing to pay a relatively higher price for green products.

A few months ago, Sigrid Nikutta, CEO of DB Cargo, stated that products transported by rail should bear a green label. One can only imagine what a powerful branding tool would this label be in the hands of the rail freight industry. Just being the greenest transport mode is not enough since consumer awareness about this matter is also crucial. Understandably, using technology to make rail freight sustainable, green, and future-proof is just one aspect of the spectrum. In the end, everything is about consumers and what kind of products they choose. The rail freight industry should also focus on becoming more customer-oriented because, as Meyer concluded, logistics companies and shippers will lose money if they do not comply with the green shift.

Author: Nikos Papatolios

Editor at RailFreight.com

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