Synchro-modal Planning for Rail Freight Operators

Synchro-modal Planning for Rail Freight Operators

MJC² have worked with the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) on the SYNCHRO-NET project, a multi-million-pound initiative to accelerate modal shift to rail (and other “green” modes such as inland waterways and short sea shipping).

SYNCHRO-NET is a truly multi-modal & multi-stakeholder initiative, co-ordinated by DHL and involving global organisations such as Kuehne+Nagel, Cosco and Dell. Leading universities and technology innovators from across Europe have collaborated to develop SYNCHRO-NET. Partnering with RSSB has enabled the (very wide ranging) interests of the rail freight industry to be properly captured and represented, guiding the work to ensure it benefits all stakeholders.

Brief Summary of SYNCHRO-NET

SYNCHRO-NET is a collaborative project: twenty partners from eight countries in Europe, with the overall aim of “de-stressing” the supply chain. i.e. optimizing multimodal logistics operations to make them more reliable, while increasing operational efficiency in terms of cost and environmental impact.

A key aspect is innovative artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, which enable real-time synchro-modal logistics optimisation. Synchro-modality is a relatively new concept: the ability to switch freight dynamically between modes and routes in response to real-time events along the supply chain.

Furthermore, SYNCHRO-NET includes de-risking strategies and load balancing algorithms to reduce queues at busy terminals and depots, while dynamically scheduling last-mile truck movements to synchronise with the overall operation.

RSSB’s Goals

RSSB wanted SYNCHRO-NET to create a suite of synchro-modal logistics optimisation tools that offer practicable solutions that benefit rail freight operators and their customers.

For example, of particular relevance to rail freight (and interconnected road haulage) is MJC²'s real-time synchro-modal optimisation software. MJC² is a leading provider of logistics planning software, ranging from bulk haulage scheduling through to parcel network optimisation.

One of RSSB’s key tasks has been to work closely with MJC² to ensure interoperability between the synchro-modal logistics algorithms and the existing rail freight IT landscape. Compliance with operational and safety standards is even more important and this again is why RSSB was ideally placed, making the link between the industry and logistics software innovators such as MJC².

The Rail Operator Interaction Layer

The module of interest for the rail industry is the Rail Operator Interaction Layer which gives visibility to where containers are positioned on the individual wagons of the train and the contents of the containers through a graphical interface.

As containers are booked on to trains the information is sent to the Rail Operator Interaction Layer from the SYNCHRO-NET eco-net so that the container can be positioned on the train. The loaded TEU and weight capacity are monitored, warning the user when the limits are broken on individual wagons and trains. The graphical interface allows users to quickly move containers around by simply dragging the containers to the desired location.

The train data is kept up to date via interfaces with real-time tracking systems that provide the location and ETA of the train.

When a container has been allocated to a particular wagon then the data can be sent back to the SYNCHRO-NET eco-net to inform the other stakeholders such as multi-modal planning systems. This allows the scheduling of truck movements to be streamlined and kept in synch with rail movements.

What has been achieved?

SYNCHRO-NET has a major impact in many aspects of freight transport:

  • Operational Efficiency – cost savings in the range 5-10% for very large operations, driven by increased utilisation of capacity/resources.
  • Environment – a similar reduction in GHG emissions, due to increased modal shift to rail.
  • Customer Care – increased reliability and automatic intelligent response to external disruptions such as port congestion or bad weather.

How has it been achieved?

Innovation is the core of SYNCHRO-NET: new artificial intelligence algorithms have been built which can cope with the complexity of multimodal logistics planning. Existing solutions on the market do not address this fully, because the problem is very hard: they take too long and do not address the end-to-end “big picture”. SYNCHRO-NET can cope with the dynamic nature of the supply chain and the ever-increasing expectations of shippers and customers.

However SYNCHRO-NET does not reinvent the wheel: interoperability with existing technology is key. RSSB for example is actively involved in the ERTMS programme - SYNCHRO-NET is an important example of how these major investments will pay dividends in the future.


Keywords: synchro-modal logistics - real-time logistics - supply chain optimization - rail


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