The race for rail-on-demand

The take-away

  • Belgian company Lineas envisions a freight on demand system in which small rail wagons zip around making deliveries just like Amazon.
  • Many European ports, like Hamburg and Gothenburg have invested in rail infrastructure to shift container transport from trucking to rail.

Everyone knows the pain of missing a train by seconds, leaving hours to kill. This is equally inconvenient when a train is carrying your freight. But European rail innovators are looking at alternatives. What if, instead of long, cumbersome trains planned long in advance, you had agile, responsive pods on no set schedule – fast, flexible, on demand, self-powered, self-driven? What if you could pull out your smartphone and, with a swipe of your finger, request a lift or a supply-chain solution?

While this flexibility – dubbed “railway on demand” by German Aerospace Centre researcher Michael Meyer zu Hörste – is unlikely to come to stations near you in the foreseeable future, transport experts across Europe are looking to reinvent rail. To reduce rising traffic congestion and cut emissions from trucking, the EU is aiming to shift 50% of long-distance road freight and medium-distance passenger trips to rail-heavy transport by 2050.

Luuk Veelenturf, assistant professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), says rail on demand would be a game changer. “If we were to achieve this, suppliers would have huge benefits in not having to wait to ship their small order in a scheduled and complete train,” he says. “Transport could be faster, more efficient, cheaper and in greater quantities – and this flexibility applies to passengers, too.”

This vision underscores the drawbacks of Europe’s rail system, which has seen a drop in overall freight share in recent years, unable to keep up with the comparative cost and flexibility of trucking. Europe has 218,000 km of railways, which if laid out end-to-end would run more than halfway to the moon. Veelenturf considers the costs of upgrading to an on-demand network to be similarly astronomical. For starters, it would be necessary to work around the different voltages and wheel gauges found across Europe, adapt rail crossings for increased traffic, introduce new safety systems, sensor equip all rail and create a mastermind system to manage the entire network – not to mention the need for every small wagon to have its own lightweight engine. And one more thing: “We’ve been talking about and testing automated cars for a long time, while apart from the occasional automated airport shuttle we haven’t properly started with autonomous rail,” says Veelenturf.

On demand by 2040

Jeroen Spruyt, director for Assets and Network Operations at the private European railway firm Lineas, sees engineering challenges as important but not the biggest barriers to rail on demand. “The bigger barriers are creating the right context and vision with other rail operators and rail infrastructure managers,” he says. Belgium-based Lineas has an atypical profile for a private rail company: it not only operates and maintains about 7,000 railcars and 200 locomotives but it also owns most of them, allowing it to take the risk of investing in new solutions. Lineas CEO Geert Pauwels has set the company on a course to make freight on demand a reality, envisioning a future where small rail wagons will zip around making deliveries à la Amazon.

With on-demand rail tech still a way off, Lineas is addressing the need for more flexible rail by collecting shipments as small as one wagon from across economic regions like the Port of Antwerp or Salzburg, and dispatching this combined long-haul cargo daily. Spruyt says that future automation could allow the creation of 150-200-metre-long self-contained freighters, “integrated into industrial client supply chains and operating like robots between European plants and harbours, as if in a European warehouse”.

“If we can get there in the next 20 years, that would be great,” Spruyt says, “but I think smaller demonstrator freight trains would already be a revolution and can be there in a few years given the right conditions.” Together with partners, including the Bosch Engineering Group, Lineas is focussing on digitising freight wagons, pushing forward with automation technology, and considering the use of light hybrid fuel-cell motors, “to prove that technological solutions can be found and that they can be affordable.”

Spruyt declined to give a timeline for an automated shunting-yard debut, but he says the project’s most important outcome for now will be to spark discussions with authorities on the open questions of automated rail. “We need to get the same debates going as with self-driving cars, answering the big questions like who takes responsibility and, with internal rail industry competition, who gets to decide how we manage these automated rail units,” he explains. “But most important, as a sector we have to start having open discussions and come to common decisions.”

A counter-shift

Veelenturf cautions that rail may be running out of time to offer a replacement to roads. “We now try to put as much freight on trains as possible as they’re more sustainable compared to trucking’s CO2 emissions and traffic congestion, but the question is: how long will these arguments hold? If Europe got electric trucks in the next 5-10 years, and if they’re operated autonomously, driving at night outside of peak traffic, without the cost of a driver, emission-free, could rail compete?” He believes that Europe’s future on-demand travel will most likely be a blend of road and rail, but the balance of that mix remains to be seen. Fellow researchers at TU/e are investigating if it might be more efficient to pave over remote regional lines as closed roads for electric, driverless buses.

Europe could offer a fitting habitat for automated, flexible rail to get a foothold: ports. Many European ports, such as Hamburg and Gothenburg have invested in rail infrastructure to shift container transport from trucking to trains, and Paul van Bers, founder of the Dutch rail-on-demand firm Container-SHIFT²RAIL-AGV sees such areas as an ideal testing ground for rail automation. “Rotterdam harbour would be perfect,” argues van Bers. “You could start with automated inter-terminal transport on existing rail, solving an acute traffic and throughput problem while proving that it’s reliable and safe; second, you would use this as a feeder for the central rail terminal and, third, expand this to private rail going east from Rotterdam. If it proves reliable, then finally roll it out over the entire Dutch network and beyond.”

Van Bers and his small team started developing their concept of Rail Automatic Guided Vehicles (rAGVs) in 2014, envisioning independent and flexible rail pods carrying one or two containers each, which could be dispatched off to their destination like checked suitcases on airport conveyor belts. However, the idea came too late for the Port of Rotterdam, which had already opted for a €175 million inter-terminal trucking road. Van Bers believes rAGVs could have been implemented for a third of the cost, setting the expanding harbour up for its predicted doubling of container capacity by 2030.

Despite its potential, he says the rail industry faces a real threat. “Container rail is at risk from road,” says van Bers. “The idea of a modal shift, that rail can be competitive with trucking operations without rail-on-demand like rAGV is a fairy tale – rail has to perform like a truck or better and traditional trains cannot do this.” Van Bers believes the main challenge lies in software that can instantaneously, automatically, and adaptively respond to multiple simultaneous rail route requests and thus control entire networks. After successful simulations, Container-SHIFT²RAIL-AGV has its control software ready and is searching for funding to create a proof of concept rAGV, preferably with RWTH Aachen University in Germany, which is retrofitting older Siemens prototype autonomous wagons for sat-nav testing.

Shift to rail

Meanwhile, the rail industry and the EU’s combined game plan includes many of these elements. Shift2Rail, a collaboration funded partially by €450 million from the EU, brings together government and the entire rail industry to drive multiple rail innovation projects forward, all linked to achieve a specific goal: a Single European Railway Area that enables a mode switch to rail. Giorgio Travaini, head of Research & Innovation at Shift2Rail says cutting disruptions and infrastructure inconsistencies between EU countries, improving flexibility, boosting high-speed connections and making rail cost-competitive are vital to tempt people to make this shift.

Furthermore, he believes Shift2Rail is pursuing two main capabilities that could lay the basis for rail on demand: rail-centred mobility as a service and on-demand service. “One programme will create an internet connecting all transport modes, so passengers can seamlessly and adaptively find the best route across Europe, including the first and last mile that might be a rental bike, DriveNow, Uber or scooter,” says Travaini.

“Shift2rail is also trying to develop on-demand service with an adaptive supply – improving tracking, planning and shipment information capabilities, to allow synchronised scheduling in real-time based on customer demand as shipments are moved through the logistics chain.” It also seeks to adapt the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) for automated train controlling capacity – and even bring in automated mainline freight trains by 2030. And then? “Once you have the underlying tech, you could imagine that in some isolated regional lines without a lot of traffic you could have small rail units running on demand.”



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