Rail, Road, and Intermodal Freight

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in the UK - Gatwick Group meeting 2017

If the members of the Gatwick Group were unsure of what IntelliTrans and its parent company Roper Technologies Inc. actually did and where they fitted into our logistics and transport scene, James Reading their Account Director for the UK and Europe, soon put matters to rights during his presentation in February.  He started off by placing IntelliTrans, with its headquarters in Atlanta Georgia (the ‘freight capital’ of the USA) in the context of its American parent company, before explaining where his own field of responsibility fitted in.  IntelliTrans was founded in 1992 and acquired by Roper in 2006.  In the USA, 46% of the freight miles are handled by rail and, for goods with a low product cost and high volume, the freight costs are critical.  The parent company covers a wide range of activities from industrial technology, energy systems and controls, traffic and toll systems, to medical imaging and freight analysis.  RF technology is at the heart of much of what the company does, with its use for scanning vehicles on toll roads and for tracking every railway wagon in the USA.  The transport management systems and software services supplied by IntelliTrans fit very well into this overall picture.

The company’s European arm is responsible for transport, warehousing, procurement and automation technology.  Its offering is centered on ‘software as a service’ and covers areas as diverse as depot management, yard management and the monitoring and refilling of storage tanks and silos.

James Reading covered the UK rail freight business, which he said was in the middle of a process of substantial change, in some detail.  Traditional sources of traffic, primarily coal, are declining rapidly and rail’s overall contribution to freight movement is quite small, particularly by comparison with the United States.  However, at a time of increased environmental awareness it has to be recognised that rail produces 76% less carbon than road transport and that one freight train can take the equivalent of between 43 and 76 lorries off the road.  Rail freight volumes, other than for coal, increased by 58% between 1994/95 and 2015/16 and the rail operators are clearly both commercial and customer focused.  At the same time developments in the road freight industry should lead to a reduction in its carbon footprint.  Waitrose is introducing a fleet of CNG powered vehicles and Mercedes-Benz Trucks are launching a small series of all-electric heavy duty trucks, while vehicle platooning trials hold out the prospect of a 20% reduction in fuel costs due to improved aerodynamics.  Other challenges such as the shortage of lorry drivers and the high proportion that have been recruited from Eastern Europe in recent years still remain.

On the UK rail scene, freight volumes are holding up well, despite the reduction in coal and steel traffic, and substantial investment is taking place to support growth alongside the creation of more capacity in the network, including the planned construction of HS2.  There is an opportunity to grow aggregate traffic, including two way loading in some cases and, despite intermodal traffic through the Channel Tunnel having been hit by the migrant crisis, there is confidence that it will grow again in the future.  The arrival of a through freight train from China in January (an 18 day and 7,456-mile journey) points the way to the development of a link that would be both quicker than the seaborne alternative and cheaper than air transport.

The market is changing however, with the growth of internet shopping and next-day deliveries taking place alongside an increasing awareness of the need for carbon reduction.  Price sensitivity remains.  Road transport benefits from long-standing customer confidence, its high efficiency, well organised trunk network, flexibility and its ability to tailor loads to vehicle size.  In addition, chilled and frozen movements are important.  However, major food retailers, such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, now see rail as an option, while shared trains are starting to be considered and deep sea multimodal freight can be well suited to rail in the right circumstances.  To increase rail’s share further, network capacity will need to be increased and the average speed of freight trains (reported to be less than 30 MPH) will need to be raised.  In addition, the main logistics consumers and providers and 3 PL planning teams will need to be given increased confidence in this mode.  Intermodal rail has, however, doubled in the last ten years with services to the UK main deep sea ports, 33 trains per day serving Felixstowe, 18 from Southampton and 8 from London Gateway currently.

James Reading explained how the GVP multi-modal transportation management software brought all the elements of ‘track and trace’, analysis, monitoring, management intervention and performance reporting together.  The example of IntelliTrans’ current work tracking 50,000 shipments each year for automotive companies with North American assembly plants was examined as was the role of the GVP iCargo Control Tower journey planning and booking system.  This latter system books shipments from origin to destination across different transport modes and compares journey options to permit a choice based on price, transit time and carbon footprint.  The detail behind these packages was particularly impressive covering everything from GPS position updates and Proof of Delivery to the scoring and evaluation of carriers against a range of standard criteria.  Multi-modal journey selection was a particularly impressive capability.

The discussion which following the presentation covered such matters as the differences of approach between British and continental rail freight operators; the potential for distributing beer by rail and the scope for rail to capitalise on the delays frequently found on the road network at present. The Chairman closed the meeting by proposing a vote of thanks that was warmly supported by all present and by presenting James Reading with a well-earned Speaker’s Certificate.

Written by John Baggs FCILT