Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS


Smart-Rail — Result In Brief

Project ID: 636071
Funded under: H2020-EU.3.4.
Country: Netherlands
Domain: Transport and Mobility

The recipe for a freight shift from road to rail

Congestion and environment-related concerns have made the shifting of transportation from road to rail a priority for the EU. But is it even achievable? The Smart-Rail project brought together stakeholders from across Europe to identify the way forward.
The recipe for a freight shift from road to rail
Although it is still one of the main options for transporting goods across Europe, rail freight remains far behind its road counterpart in terms of market share. At first glance, it’s easily understandable: road freight is reputed for its flexibility, cost effectiveness and continued innovation, whilst the rail sector pales in comparison. It’s a complex system, involving a great number of different public and private stakeholders performing daily operations. They have no choice but to sit at the same table before any change in the rail system can be made.

The point of the Smart-Rail (Smart Supply Chain Oriented Rail Freight Services) project was to help the sector catch up to its main competitor. It aimed to find out the reasons why potential customers opt for road instead of rail, contribute to a mental shift in the sector, strengthen cooperation between stakeholders and establish ‘living labs’ to test and improve innovation measures in real-life situations.

“We focused on the identification of cost-effective solutions to deal with the rail sector’s complexity and to actively address the requirements of new markets,” says Ming Chen, scientific coordinator of Smart-Rail on behalf of TNO. “We believe that many things can be done as long as the user-oriented and cooperative mindset of the involved stakeholders is achieved.”

The first step consisted in gaining a better understanding of why these ‘new markets’ are not using rail as a primary mode of transportation. Delays due to a lack of coordination between stakeholders within and beyond the rail sector, long lead times, high logistical costs for the user, low flexibility and the lack of real-time information on order status were amongst the main reasons.

With this in mind, the consortium introduced innovative measures and developed working business models for cooperation between stakeholders. They also developed an architecture for the exchange of information. The project’s three ‘living labs’ set these in motion by respectively: validating and modifying a novel concept for wagonload trains in an important international corridor; creating an operational logistical control tower including rail; and developing several pilots for better data management, planning of international train paths, and alternatives in case of service disruptions.

“These actions will lead to an improvement in the rail services in the short and medium term,” says Chen. “Yet, there is a concern for the long term: radical innovations are currently taking place in the automotive sector that will have significant impacts on the competitiveness of rail. For instance, unmanned trucking would imply a radical cost reduction of around 50 % for road freight, which could in some cases make road transportation competitive even for bulk transportation.”

Whilst Chen says that the rail sector could have seen this problem coming already for quite some time, he deems the absence of reaction to be a ‘denial phase’. “We observed a strong focus of rail operation and R&I on keeping current freight on rail instead of establishing a shift of freight from road to rail.”

Policy-making is also addressed by the consortium. Whilst investment in R&I for road transport automation is notably targeting the reduction of congestion, a major shift from rail freight to road resulting from a lack of political support would indeed be counterproductive. “This would lead to major societal costs and ineffective use of investments. Therefore R&I agendas and corresponding budgets should be balanced. Equally, regulation should not be a barrier to the uptake of innovation allowing for a more flexible rail system.”

Whilst Smart-Rail, one of the lighthouse projects of Shift2Rail, has already been completed, the knowledge obtained on the development of the required rail and logistical information platforms is being transferred to other ongoing projects. Chen says he’s confident that the sector will keep heading in the right direction.

Related information


Smart-Rail, freight, future, mental shift, TNO
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