These are the rail freight opportunities during COVID-19

Amid the disaster of the coronavirus pandemic, there are opportunities for rail freight and recovery. That’s the message from James Fox, co-founder and commercial director at rail technology specialists 3Squared. He says that the radical changes in user profile of the railways, primarily the collapse in passenger numbers, offers potential for rail freight to play a bigger part in the economic recovery of the UK. Fox argues that applied technology can play a significant role in realising that potential.

Putting more freight on the UK railway network is a daily topic of conversation, but capacity is also a daily problem. Britain’s rapidly growing passenger market has habitually taken the lion’s share of scarce paths. Sheffield headquartered 3Squared has been applying their technology based solutions to that recurring challenge. With the year drawing to a close, James Fox says that 2020 has proven to be one of the toughest in rail history. He asks if there are any positives to glean from it, and what are the key lessons to be learned from the pandemic.

Safety remains paramount

Vaccinations have started in the UK, but as Boris Johnson told the country, “We are not there yet.” The prime minister was referring to the relief from the pandemic, but his words equally apply to industry at large. For the foreseeable future, Fox argues that industry has to rapidly adapt to mandatory face masks, increased sanitisation and social distancing measures. “It is no longer a life projected post-Covid – it will be life with Covid”, he says.

GB Railfreight is a UK operator with a reputation for embracing technological advances for commercial and operational benefit. The company recently signed a three-year deal to renew application of the RailSmart platform from 3Squared. (Image: 3Squared / GBRf)

How do these new challenges impact the growth of innovation across the rail network, asks Fox. “Safety has always been at the heart of the rail industry”, he says. “It is inevitable, given the many complex and moving parts that the network manages, that safety is of paramount importance on a daily basis. However, 2020 has challenged the industry with a plethora of new safety issues to address.”

Innovation in times of strife

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) provides clearly defined safety advice. 3Squared says collaboration is key, and the industry is working closely to implement new safety processes and procedures. That though, has historically been the impetus for advances in the rail industry. “We only need to look at history to see how new ideas and innovations came to life during times of strife”, says Fox, pointing to the example of the mandated consolidation of the industry in the first quarter of the twentieth century, into the so-called “Big Four” railway companies – a corporate landscape that endured until nationalisation in 1948. A reorganisation on that scale is once again being discussed, at least in terms of passenger operations.

WH Davis / Davis Wagon Services, the British rolling stock manufacturer and maintainer, uses technological solutions to help remain a market leader in the face of large-scale global competitors. John Hall, the managing director of Davis Wagon Services pictured with Becky McGuire, client services manager from 3Squared (3Squared / DWS)

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced the industry to take stock of its role in society. “With remote working set to rise as many offices instruct staff to work from home until at least early 2021, the industry must take the time to identify how it can support the wider economy”, says Fox. For the foreseeable future, mass movement of passengers may not be the only game in town. New opportunities to utilise rail infrastructure may present opportunities for freight and passenger operators to collaborate in new ways. “It is essential that the industry begins to look beyond rail as purely a way to get workers from A-B and innovate to adapt to this step change, showcasing the exciting and untapped opportunities that rail provides”, adds Fox.

Delivering a cleaner, greener, digital railway

Simply putting parcels on empty passenger seats is only an interim beginning. There are already several examples of that model of innovation. 3Squared is applying technological support to a more complex railway, to help make more complex interactions work commercially. HS2, for example, is applying 3Squared’s RailSmart software, as the basis of a supply chain management system. That, says Fox, is generating jobs, and making room for new innovations to develop and grow. Fox believes the government’s commitment to a digital railway is critical to the sector and the wider economy. “This investment of time and finances shows that ideas will still be nurtured and opportunities for innovation needn’t be halted or abandoned, despite this turbulent time”, he says.

As the prime minister said, Fox thinks the time of face masks and social distancing will be here for some time. “The rail industry has long been acquainted with change and this will inevitably remain the same in 2020 and beyond”, he says. “The time may be right to start implementing the changes required to make a greener railway, something that has long been an ambition of ours at 3Squared. How this looks now will take some navigating. We have the time now to take stock and capitalise, to shape and plan what this could look like. Ultimately without ideas and innovation, we won’t achieve the greener, digital railway. The future may not be as gloomy as it once looked and in fact, it may present a unique time in history to nurture new concepts and innovations to transport us into the new normal.”

Main picture: James Fox (centre) says technology will be key to adapting the modern railway to changed circumstances in the years to come.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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