Multimodal transport and logistics

September 28, 2021

Multimodal Transport

The opportunity for public rail to enable greater flexibility in the supply chain

Among many of the problems created by the compounded disruption of Covid and Brexit in the UK is a broken supply chain. While many issues are contributing to delays for goods entering the UK, moving cargo around the country is also a big problem. 

The lack of trained drivers of heavy goods vehicles (HGV) is a key factor driving logistics breakdowns. While this was a problem before Covid, the issue has only worsened. The 60,000 lorry driver shortage before the pandemic has now grown to 100,000 as drivers who originated from EU member states have gone home. 

This problem is causing shortages of many common consumer items across the country. For example:

  • McDonald’s can’t get milkshakes 
  • BP plc is closing a number of its sites due to the inability to get petrol
  • KFC can’t get chicken to its stores
  • Wetherspoons is running out of beer

Disruptions that stress systems often exacerbate and expose existing underlying problems. The UK needs to reimagine a supply chain that is much more flexible and resilient. 

Advantages of multimodal transport

How multimodal logistics can make supply chains more flexible and agile

One way that the UK can overcome these challenges is by embracing a multimodal logistics model. This enables cargo to be shipped under a single contract, but may be completed by at least two different modes of transport. 

One mode of transport that presents a significant opportunity in a multimodal model is public transportation. The lockdowns caused by Covid have changed our behaviours leading to a significant drop in the utilisation of public transportation. As the restrictions around Covid are being lifted, passengers are still reluctant to return to buses and trains. They may never. This creates excess capacity that, if utilised effectively, could support a much more flexible logistics strategy.

This concept of shipping cargo on public transportation designed for people is not new or unique to the UK. Australia, a leader in multimodal transportation, is exploring the concept of leveraging commuter trains to ship cargo. The concept was also successfully implemented by British Rail in the sixties with a service known as Red Star.

The opportunity

A study by iMove, an applied research centre in Australia, found that the greatest opportunity to leverage public transportation in a multimodal system is in the middle mile. They also found that multimodality was best suited for same-day delivery. The growing demand for same-day delivery, the excess capacity of public rail, and available technology are important factors that can lead to successful service in the UK. With over 40 trains a day running from Manchester to London alone, and London’s investment in smart city technology, the opportunity to leverage this underutilised service to deliver same day to London, should be explored. 

Change is driving the need to reimagine the last mile as well. Learn more here.

How might it work?

Two approaches have been considered or tried in the past. One approach is to use dedicated rail cars attached to passenger trains to ship freight. Another option is to simply load parcels onto vacant or below-capacity passenger cars. 

The most straightforward approach is to load a container full of parcels onto a passenger train headed for the appropriate destination. Operations like this would also certainly require some manpower to load and unload cargo, and effective coordination is needed to ensure regular schedules are not disrupted. This is the approach that the Australians are exploring, which focuses on taking advantage of the excess capacity available on passenger trains.

In 2017 the French Tramfret project used retired passenger trains to haul freight. This pilot ultimately failed due to economic viability and technical issues, but there may be an opportunity to rework the concept in the current environment. Dedicated rail cars could be used not only for transport, but also as a warehouse or sorting centre on wheels. Sorting operations could be set up within these dedicated cars and sorting and organizing could be done on the way to the destination. Again, this concept is not new to the UK and has worked in the past. Travelling post offices that began in 1838 sorted mail in transit and only ceased operations in 2004. With parcels sorted en route, shipments could also be repackaged into containers that could be loaded onto trains running in different directions. Small parcels could also be organized for couriers headed for different parts of the city.

Another concept that could be explored and enabled by mobile technology is leveraging storage lockers at the train station. Instead of delivering a parcel to its end destination, small packages could be picked up at the train station as the recipient passes through. With mobile technology, people and packages can be tracked and algorithms can coordinate the timing so the package is available as the recipient arrives at the station. Leveraging mobile technology to unlock lockers is another innovation that could help enable this concept. 

There are several ways that public transportation could be used to ship parcels. For the most nimble system, a variety of approaches coordinated together may prove to be the most efficient. 

Learn more about innovation across the supply chain 

IT requirements

Regardless of how a system may evolve to create a more flexible supply chain, a nimble integrated and smart IT infrastructure will be required. IoT systems to capture data, AI, and big data systems to track and predict movement and integration so all systems can work together, is an absolute prerequisite.

At NashTech, we deliver innovative logistics solutions with our agile, solution-focused approach, leveraging mainstream and emerging technologies to build custom software products that are robust, scalable, and secure. As a trusted technology partner, we work in close collaboration with you to ensure you realise the value of the software earlier. Get in touch today to find out more.

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