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Why innovation in rail freight doesn’t happen

Those looking to shift freight on the rail network are unlikely to see large-scale innovation soon, according to a presentation given at Multimodal earlier this week.

“I don’t think we are very good at innovation in the rail freight sector,” said Ralph Goldney, managing director of Railfreight Consulting. “Essentially it’s the same offering. It hasn’t changed in the last 30 years”.Freight1

Goldney offered factors that made it difficult for companies to innovate: First, the current offering is satisfactory: “People keep buying and the sector keeps growing”. This means that any gains that customers get would be incremental.

Second, there are very high barriers to change. For example, freight rail manufacturer WH Davis developed the lowliner – a new platform vehicle with an optimised platform length of 45 feet that opened up the rail network to high cube container traffic. This required the development of a new bogie and for numerous approvals to be obtained – in all it took four years to get the product launched.

The third factor is the dislocation between those who have to pay the cost of innovation – the rail companies – and those who would benefit – often the shippers. To get over this problem you need a change agent who can enable the change and also get the benefit of that change. In most cases, that is where the government needs to step in.Freight_2

Goldney then went through some examples of possible innovations that could boost efficiency and the obstacles that would have to be overcome. If the industry tried to introduce remotely driven trains, which would cut out a large chunk of labour costs, there would be  objections from trade unions and safety organisations. Increasing train speed up to 125mph or 140mph, up from the current limit of 75mph would require new bogies and a new fleet of locomotives and as well as negotiations with network rail over track use.

“We are in a very conservative business – managing chance is very difficult,” admitted Goldney. From the floor, questions covered whether rail freight could become involved in HS2 and whether increasing the load capacity of trains was more important than improving speed.

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