A seamless procedure at all border crossings, faster transit time, lower costs and more flexibility in organising rail freight transport. And of course, away with the pile of paperwork, which has to be carried around to pass all parties involved. When all parties on a logistics chain would agree to use the electronic consignment note, paperless transport could be realised. In theory, but a lot remains to be done before it replaces the paper version, said the International Rail Transport Committee (CIT).
The electronic version of consignment note is set to be a gamechanger for the rail freight industry and as a body representing some 216 railway undertakings and shipping companies, the CIT has been working for years to bring the innovative tool to the market. The functional and technical requirements were finalised in January 2017. With the establishment of Raildata, the IT platform is in place. However, there are some challenges remaining, said General Secretary Cesare Brand.
“At the moment, it is only used for business-to-business flow of information”, he explained. The electronic consignment note can also be used for business-to-administration communication, such as for the communication between a railway operator and infrastructure manager. However, this part of the chain is still subject to ongoing negotiations about the legal requirement, said Brand. “The EU has proposed a new amendment to the Customs Code and it is not yet clear which information is required in this regard. Furthermore, in the business-to-administrations flow of informations some administrations still require paper documents.”
On a business-to-business level, implementation has commenced with several pioneers adopting the electronic version at the moment. The electronic consignment note can be used in two ways, explained the general secretary. “It can be used through a centralised data bank. This data bank is managed by Raildata. Or, parties can opt to implement the electronic note on a bilateral basis. Front runners are DB Cargo and its subsidiaries, SNCF, Czech Railways, GreenCargo, Lineas Captrain, SBB Cargo, RCA and Mercitalia, to name a few.”
At the same time, industry players are still reluctant to make the switch. “The technology comes with new procedures, and these require investments in IT tools”, said Brand. “Many rail freight companies are currently not in their best shape, and this is not the time for major investments. Added to this is the fact that the investment will only start paying off when the electronic version is adopted on a broader scale, or paperwork needs to be presented simultaneously”, Brand argued.
Finally, there is still unclarity about the recognition of the electronic consignment note in the courts of individual member states, the CIT official explained. “The consignment note is a proof of contract, but the level of recognition of the document as such varies greatly between the courts in different countries. The EU Commission is now trying to harmonise this legislation.”
Expanding to China
The electronic freight document applies within the jurisdiction of the region covered by the Convention concerning International Carriage by Rail (COTIF). This includes Europe, the Maghreb and in Middle East. However, CIT is currently expanding its reach to also cover transportation between Europe and China. “We are expecting to finalise the functional and technical requirements beginning next year”, said Brand.
“We are moving forward, but we are moving slowly”, he noted. “We still have a lot of work to do. But I think we are doing well as a rail freight sector. One-and-a-half year ago the sector was not ready. Now we are ready, we just need to move forward.”