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Rail Connected gains momentum

The ‘Rail Connected’ programme has been running for over a year now. The bar was set high right from the start: ‘Take the first step towards boosting rail freight traffic growth’. How are things going one year on? A sector update: ‘Great that the first steps have now been taken as we’ve been working on this for a long time.’

Source: Port of Rotterdam

The ‘Rail Connected’ growth programme arose from the Rail Freight Transport Measures Package to promote rail freight transport. The programme is financed by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Port of Rotterdam Authority. The Port of Rotterdam Authority coordinates the programme, which is designed together with market parties.

The aim is to use digitisation to streamline information exchange between carriers, rail operators and terminals, thereby reducing manual operations. At the start of the project, Matthijs van Doorn, Director of Commerce at the Port of Rotterdam Authority, stated: ‘It is our aim to continue to build a competitive rail offer. We can only succeed if we take additional steps in efficiency, transparency and reliability. Digitisation and data sharing are essential for this.’

Pre-notification

‘We’re certainly taking those first steps now,’ stated Remmert Braat. From Portbase, the Port Community system provider, Braat is responsible for the development of the digital infrastructure needed to enable Rail Connected. ‘We started with the basics: the pre-notification of trains. Once a week, everyone submits a digital notification of which trains will be travelling the following week.’ That sounds like a small step, but Niels Jansen, Network Specialist at Hutchison Ports Europe Intermodal, a provider of rail and inland shipping services, is delighted with this. ‘This insight is incredibly helpful as you can see whether slots become vacant. We’ve been trying to organise this for some time as a sector, but it kept stalling. Now it’s finally been arranged.’

Colleague Raymon van Bokken, Senior Business Consultant at Hutchison Ports Europe Intermodal, is convinced that these small steps are part of the reason for the programme’s success. ‘If you take small steps, you get a faster result. Of course, we have a major end goal in mind, but it’s good to start by getting the basics right and building on that. That works.’

Shared interest

Another reason Rail Connected works is due to the entire chain’s involvement. Van Bokkem continued: ‘Simply every party has joined us, even the traction suppliers. With Port Authority and Portbase support, we’re now able to discuss everything together openly. For me that’s actually more important than devising technical solutions. You can feel the shared interest.’

At the start of Rail Connected, some nineteen rail freight transport sector parties had signed up for the programme. As well as deep-sea container terminals RWG and Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam, these included: Contargo, Combi Terminal Twente-Rotterdam, Danser Group, DB Cargo Nederland, DistriRail, European Gateway Services, Haeger & Schmidt Logistics, KombiRail Europe, LTE Logistics & Transport, Neska Intermodal, Optimodal, Portshuttle, Rail Force One, Raillogix, Rotterdam Rail Feeding, RTB Cargo and Trimodal Europe. A further five parties joined over the past year: ERS Railways, Lineas, Rail Service Center Rotterdam, DP World and APM Terminals Maasvlakte II. This largely covers the Rotterdam rail freight sector. However, Jansen is hoping that the remaining companies will also join as quickly as possible. ‘The more that take part, the greater efficiencies we can achieve together.’

Rebecca McFedries from container terminal RWG added: ‘Digitisation, data sharing and collaboration are vital in optimising rail freight transport. As a deep-sea terminal, we think it’s important that we take part in initiatives that result in hinterland freight transport improvements.’

Excel files by email

Work is pressing ahead with step 2 now that the first step, ‘train pre-notification’, has been implemented. ‘By end 2023, we want to have a clear digital picture of how each train is configured,’ explained Braat from Portbase. ‘Which locomotive, how many carriages, of which type and which carriage is carrying which container.’

Djaswan Kowlesar, Head of Planning Operations NL at train operator RTB Cargo, is looking forward to it. ‘As traction supplier, the digital exchange of clear cargo and train information is extremely interesting for us. We currently still receive train cargo schedules by email in PDF or Excel. We then need to calculate the cargo weights manually for processing in our system. It also happens a lot that when our driver checks his train, there are differences compared with the cargo schedule. It would be really handy and would save a lot of time if terminals proactively sent a digital list to clarify what has been loaded and what not.’

Mutual trust

‘If everyone has insight into the train configuration we’ll be able to prevent a lot of “waste”,’ added Van Bokkem. ‘Errors will be discovered earlier, capacity put to better use and cancellations can be identified in time so you can schedule in another container. Once we’ve arranged this, it will not only improve the efficiency and reliability of rail freight transport as a product, but will also improve trust within the chain. That would really be a great step.’

As far as Suzanne Smit, Programme Manager on behalf of Port of Rotterdam Authority, is concerned, it won’t stop there. Preparations for step 3 and beyond are already being taken. ‘We’re identifying which other manual operations we could digitise so we can further improve the rail product. We certainly want to start implementing a “track & trace” system for trains. Where is the train now and what is the estimated time of arrival, or ETA. We’ll be further engaging with ProRail on this so they install cameras and sensors at rail yards, which will be a big help. We’re also seeking connection with Rail Network Europe. But that’s quite a way in the future. The most important interim step we need to take before then is to agree standards. What do we mean by the terms and concepts that we use? There’s still some confusion about this right now. It will be very difficult to digitise processes without this clarity.’

Predictability

Although there’s still plenty that needs addressing within rail freight transport, a year after the start there’s a real sense of optimism about the initial results and the developments so far. Van Doorn: ‘The transparency and insights created by digitisation will contribute to improved predictability of the rail freight transport product. Eventually, this will help optimise railway and train use, and employee deployment. And that’s a good development for all stakeholders.’

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