The importance of digitalization in the management of rail transport flows

March 8, 2024

Why and how to digitize rail transport flows? What tools to use, what technologies to turn to, what levers should be preferred for a successful adoption? And for what benefits?

In Europe, the modal share of rail freight represents only 18% of freight transport. However, rail freight is essential to achieve the decarbonization goals set by numerous institutions and conventions, such as the Paris Agreements and the COPs of recent years. In fact, Rail freight transport emits 14 times less CO2 than road transport, per ton transported. This is the main reason why the European Green Deal set the objective of reaching the 30% modal share for railways in Europe by 2030.

However, there are still obstacles to the adoption of rail freight by the largest number of companies, which results in an overwhelming presence of road freight in Europe: 75%. Unsuitable tools, long and complex processes, repetitive tasks for logistics teams, too much use of paper documents, difficult monitoring of cars and goods, delays... For rail freight to be more attractive, it needs to be simplified. This is where digitalization in the management of rail transport flows comes into play.

How to implement this digitalization? What tools to use, what technologies to turn to, what levers should be preferred for a successful adoption? And what are the benefits of such digitalization for rail freight players?

Leveraging the right technology at the right time

Artificial intelligence: optimizing logistics processes and resource allocation

Being able to analyze data to propose solutions, recommendations and improvements is one of the main advantages of artificial intelligence (AI). In the case of rail transport, AI takes into account all relevant data (transport flows, timetables, wagon capacities, operational constraints) and get the best alternatives out of it for route planning, coordinating operations, managing inventory, or resolving bottleneck issues.

The use of artificial intelligence is also relevant for the allocation of resources. AI is able to take into account many factors, such as shipping priorities, delivery times or capacity constraints. Based on these factors, AI is able to assign cars, plan loading and unloading operations, and optimize connections between trains in the most efficient way possible in order to maximize the use of rail assets.

Finally, AI can assist teams with intelligent decision-making. AI uses insights from historical data to provide recommendations on how to respond to unexpected changes, resolve operational issues, minimize delays, etc. In short, AI assists decision-making and makes it more informed, leading to better overall efficiency in the management of transport flows. 

IoT for real-time surveillance

The presence of intelligent sensors on the cars allows multiple applications. Final objective: improve the quality of service, reduce losses and guarantee smooth transport. GPS sensors allow real-time monitoring of wagons and alert teams in the event of anomalies such as a stop, a delay or a departure from the route. The management of the cold chain is facilitated using temperature and humidity sensors. Vibration sensors inform teams about any shock or change in the position of the cars, allowing them to anticipate a potential theft or accident on the way. Finally, sensors promote the implementation of predictive maintenance by collecting data on performance, wear and potential failures.

In summary, the digitalization of the management of transport flows allows:

- optimizing route planning

- improving the visibility of shipments for better flow management, facilitating collaboration between all stakeholders: shippers, railway companies, rental companies, etc.

- the reduction of waiting times, delays and fixed assets

- the automation of logistics processes leading to better operational efficiency and happier teams who can focus on tasks with greater added value

- the reduction of CO2 emissions through easier collection and measurement using artificial intelligence

Best practices to adopt now to successfully digitize

- Establishing a clear vision : What does digitalization mean for your business? How will it contribute to improving the management of transport flows?

- Evaluate needs and appropriate technologies : Conduct a thorough assessment of your company's digitalization needs. Identify the specific areas of transport flow management that can benefit the most from digitalization. Determine which technologies are best suited to meet identified needs.

- Collaborate with supply chain partners : Ensure that your digitalization initiatives are aligned and interoperable with the systems and processes of your partners (sites and factories, carriers, rail operators, etc.).

- Train and raise awareness among employees : Make sure your employees understand the benefits of digitalization, the new skills required, and how work processes can change. Provide adequate training to enable employees to master new technologies and adapt to new ways of working.

- Change Management : Implement a change management strategy to anticipate resistance, communicate effectively, and involve employees throughout the process. The changes brought about by digitalization can lead to significant organizational and cultural changes, which it is essential to take into account and anticipate.

Digitalization in the management of rail transport flows thus makes it possible to optimize processes, improve monitoring and visibility related to wagons, to anticipate problems and improve the quality of service, to better secure transactions and to make the work of teams easier, more effective and with greater added value.

By improving the flexibility of rail freight, achieving the objective of the European Green Deal will be even easier.

30 minutes to discuss your digitalization needs