HomeHSEQResearch - adding value in rail freight

Research – adding value in rail freight

Listen to this article

The Retired Railway Officers Society was founded in 1901. One of its aims is to provide an opportunity to maintain the ongoing friendships and contacts of people retired from senior positions in the rail industry. Due to the extensive experience of its audience, the Society is able to attract a high calibre of speaker, and this was the case recently when Robert Staunton and Aaron Rostron-Barrett from the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) presented ‘Research adding value in rail freight’.

RSSB is an independent company limited by guarantee and its primary purpose is to bring about improved health and safety performance throughout Britain’s railway network. RSSB has four main areas of activity to support the rail industry. These are research, safety, Standards, and sustainability.

RSSB research

Evidence-based changes to Standards and the development of new and improved safety risk tools underpins RSSB’s research programme. Its research activity also helps the industry with key challenges that cannot be tackled in isolation and need whole-system and long-term thinking. The research is funded by the Department of Transport (DfT) (£7.5-£10 million per annum) and is organised as a tripartite agreement between RSSB, the DfT, and the rail organisations.

The RSSB research team looks into future developments and sometimes makes the first steps in exploiting new technologies into the rail industry. It looks at ways of removing barriers in operations, revaluating the safety risk, and understanding the costs and benefits of any change. RSSB’s research is focussed on high impact topics, which may also have high uncertainty, with low risk changes the responsibility of the rail organisations. RSSB doesn’t do the most profitable or most immediate research / business improvement – that’s for the rail organisations. They often look at problems that many stakeholders in the industry have, but are too big for one organisation. These may be complex problems and the effort to resolve the issue and to realise the benefits don’t lie in the same place. This is the case with rail freight.

Currently, rail freight contributes £2.45 billion to the UK economy each year and is growing and evolving. Businesses are making the switch from road (and air) to rail to keep their supply chains moving forward, sustainably, and efficiently. Rail freight is greener than other forms of transport and its contribution to net zero will increase. A tonne of freight moved by rail produces around a quarter of the carbon emissions compared to it being moved by road, and a single freight train can replace up to a mile of lorries from the roads, which is equivalent to around 1 billion fewer Heavy Good Vehicles (HGV) miles every year. On land, rail is the most sustainable option for long distance, ‘heavy lifting’, while lorries and vans, ideally electric vehicles, are best placed to cover the ‘last mile’. Although there is currently some negativity to electric vehicles, they can easily cover the last 10 or 20 miles or more.

Credit: RSSB

The government has set a target for rail freight growth of at least 75% by 2050 to deliver more benefits to the country. Many believe this target should be bigger and call for robust plans to be put in place to achieve this target. From food to supermarkets, to building materials for construction and to removing waste, rail freight is a vital part of the transport system, and it impacts all our lives. Ninety percent of rail freight benefits are realised outside London and the South East. It is therefore crucial to achieving a growing economy and creating opportunities right across the country.

But to achieve national decarbonisation targets and achieve net-zero there must be more investment in rail freight. The government is backing the shift of freight from road to rail and offering funding for businesses to make the switch through Mode Shift grants. This is a good start, but more innovation is required.


There are many challenges in the freight business. These include clearing routes for freight operation and dealing with heavy loads and the transport of dangerous goods. There have been some significant accidents relating to dangerous goods in Canada and North America. An incident in East Palestine, Ohio, resulted in a chemical spillage with danger to residents, and in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed when the handbrakes on a freight train were left off and the train rolled back down a hill into the town.

RSSB monitors incidents across the world and publishes a monthly review of lessons and learning for the industry. In Wales, an incident at Llangennech in 2020 resulted in a wheel flat which eventually derailed the train. Oil spillage created significant pollution in an area of special scientific interest, and it cost £37 million to clear up. Freight on the GB railway is generally safe and freight incidents are rare, accounting for only 2% of the fatality weighted industry risk. However, rare is not the same as never, and 38% of all potentially higher-risk accident events recorded over the past five years have involved freight trains or freight operators.

The main risk areas are derailment (40%), workforce personal injury (20%), train collision (12%), and level crossing incidents (12%). Freight trains have an overall lower number of Signals Passed At Danger (SPADs) compared to passenger trains, but a tool developed by RSSB which normalises freight trains by the number of red aspect signals they face, has revealed that normalised freight train SPADs are nearly three times higher than passenger trains. The tool is now available for operators to use to understand and mitigate their risks.

Freight train payloads

RSSB has a portfolio of research projects which will help the freight industry to grow and become more efficient. As an example, Aaron described a project to increase the maximum allowable freight train payloads. The trailing load limit is defined by the coupler strength, the tractive effort of the loco, and the ability to meet the timetable. The freight train loading tables, derived from the British Rail days, have not been updated since the introduction of the Class 66 loco around 25 years ago. On the GB rail network, there are three types of screw couplers with ratings of 23 tonnes, 34.5 tonnes, and 56 tonnes. There are two factors of safety: proof strength and braking strength. RSSB research has identified that the two factors are each applied in a different way. With analysis, these were able to be consolidated and resulted in an increase of 13% in allowable trailing load for a 56-tonne coupler, and 16% for a 34.5-tonne coupler.
Applying this research to real world case studies saves operators thousands of pounds in efficiencies per freight flow and brings significant environment and social benefits. Three examples are:

  • Moving intermodal freight on the East Coast via Harringay. Train lengths can be extended by 14% (2 wagons) providing operating cost savings of £245,000 annually as well as a 1.4-tonne reduction in CO2, 8kg reduction in NOx, and 171g reduction in particulates.
  • Moving jet fuel to Heathrow airport. Train lengths can be extended by 12.5% (3 wagons) providing operating cost savings of £291,000 annually as well as a 0.25-tonne reduction in CO2, 2kg reduction in NOx, and 15g reduction in particulates.
  • Moving intermodal freight on the West Coast Mainline via Beattock. Train lengths can be extended by 21% (4 wagons) providing operating cost savings of £364,000 annually as well as a 2.1-tonne reduction in CO2, 13kg reduction in NOx, and 263g reduction in particulates.

Freightliner has also used the tool to run longer trains of bulk aggregates out of Tunstead in Derbyshire.

The old trailing load calculations assumed that the gradient on a route was the most pessimistic possible. RSSB has developed a tool to calculate trailing load limits based on actual gradients. As an example, the tool identified that five extra wagons could be hauled over the Haringey Junction route with no change to the infrastructure, compared to the previous Standard. In the short term, interim advice has been issued to the industry, and Network Rail is making Specific Loads Book modifications. Longer term, the Standards will be revised and incorporated into a digitised Loads Book. Freightliner is already using this tool to run significantly longer trains and saving between £245,000 and £346,000 annually per freight flow.

A further RSSB project relates to axle bearing monitoring, using acoustic signature rather than temperature. The study looked at trackside fitments, compared to on-board monitoring, which would take longer to pay back, but have potential additional benefits.

Smart wagons

Digital Auto-Couplers (DAC) have two core primary functions: (i) to enable wagons to couple together without human interaction; and (ii) to enable the provision of power and data down the train to provide ‘smart’ wagons. Above the coupler is a connecting box, the cover of which rotates out of the way when the wagons are coupled together enabling a secure connection. Conduit is provided through the wagon from one coupler to the next to provide electrical continuity down the train.

Credit: iStockphoto.com

On the wagon there are power and data nodes which enable instrumentation to be placed. This instrumentation is not part of the core DAC fitment but produces many potential ‘enabled benefits’ such as load and vibration monitoring. Implementation would require modification to 900 locos and shunters, 13,600 wagons, and the procurement of 20,000 DACs. The benefits were around £26 million per annum and were mostly enabled benefits such as wheelslide protection and remote condition monitoring to reduce service failures and derailment risk.

An alternative approach is to enable such benefits by giving the wagons an electrical supply fed from the locomotive’s auxiliary power supply via jumper cables between wagons. A pilot project has demonstrated the feasibility of this concept although this did not include wheel slide protection. This trial concluded that such a system would add less than 1% to the haulage cost of a train.

Another way of achieving freight benefits being developed by VTG and Knorr Bremse is iWagon, which Rail Engineer covered in Issue 206 (Jan/Feb 2024). This extracts energy from the freight wagon wheel rotation to power diagnostic systems and overcoming the lack of a power feed on a freight train. The VTG Rail JPA tank wagons are the first three wagons to be fitted which have been modified at Tarmac’s Maintenance Depot at Dunbar in Scotland. Further wagons for trial fitment will be deployed on the Hanson and Mendip Rail fleets.

Further innovation

Other innovation projects include assessing the aerodynamic risk in increasing average and maximum speeds of freight trains, to allow less speed differential with passenger trains and avoid slower freight trains holding up passenger trains. This initiative has the potential to help everyone in rail with better service reliability, faster freight journey times, and avoids the need for as many expensive passing loops.

A tool to predict future route access for heavy axle weight trains involves identifying the locations on the network where withdrawal of the dispensation to run a heavy axle train, due to infrastructure deterioration, could prove a risk for an operator. Knowledge of the critical points enables the freight operator to discuss options with Network Rail.

The implementation of research projects is another challenge. The fitting of Double Variable Rate Sanders to passenger trains has been developed, tested, piloted, and accepted by drivers and operators, but only two trains have been fitted to date. The structure of the industry does not always facilitate early implementation of research and freight operators are not subsidised, and freight transport is very competitive. Identifying who funds freight enhancements, which could benefit everyone in rail, is not always straightforward.
RSSB tracks and monitors the implementation of its research projects, taking a role in facilitating their introduction using project management techniques. Over the last 10 years, 58% of the research work has been significant, with 19% of the significant work fully implemented.

The research funding expectation for Control Period 7 is £50 million, along with £165 million for Network Rail’s R&D activity, but this is a small fraction of the £1.2 billion total spend on developing and implementing technology. By adopting a whole system optimisation approach, RSSB is delivering value for freight in projects relating to safety, efficient operation, and growth. Its focus on implementation has increased take-up and provides a good return for the industry from the funding available.

All of RSSB’s research is available free to access via its website:

Of necessity this presentation was unable to cover the full portfolio of RSSB research projects. Those not addressed in this feature will be the subject of a feature in the next issue.

With thanks to the Retired Railway Officers Society and RSSB for their help with this article.

Lead image credit: iStockphoto.com

Paul Darlington CEng FIET FIRSE
Paul Darlington CEng FIET FIRSEhttp://therailengineer.com

Signalling and telecommunications, cyber security, level crossings

Paul Darlington joined British Rail as a trainee telecoms technician in September 1975. He became an instructor in telecommunications and moved to the telecoms project office in Birmingham, where he was involved in designing customer information systems and radio schemes. By the time of privatisation, he was a project engineer with BR Telecommunications Ltd, responsible for the implementation of telecommunication schemes included Merseyrail IECC resignalling.

With the inception of Railtrack, Paul moved to Manchester as the telecoms engineer for the North West. He was, for a time, the engineering manager responsible for coordinating all the multi-functional engineering disciplines in the North West Zone.

His next role was head of telecommunications for Network Rail in London, where the foundations for Network Rail Telecoms and the IP network now known as FTNx were put in place. He then moved back to Manchester as the signalling route asset manager for LNW North and led the control period 5 signalling renewals planning. He also continued as chair of the safety review panel for the national GSM-R programme.

After a 37-year career in the rail industry, Paul retired in October 2012 and, as well as writing for Rail Engineer, is the managing editor of IRSE News.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.