As any logistics expert will tell you, getting freight off the road and onto the railway is one of the single most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions. Yet while road haulage grows year on year across Europe, rail freight is having trouble keeping pace. Working with start-up Everysens and its logistics partner IDEO, evian is using innovative internet-of-things technology to surmount the challenges and show other companies what’s good about goods trains.
Study after study has shown that transporting a tonne of goods by rail generates far lower emissions than putting that same tonne on the road. Depending on factors such as whether the train in question is electrified and how electricity is generated, there is some fluctuation, but Europe-wide figures put an average carbon price-tag of around 20g of CO2 per tonne for every kilometre hauled; for road transport, that number soars to over 110g per tonne and per kilometre.
What’s more, many researchers argue that the figures available overstate rail emissions and understate road emissions, failing to take into account new, more efficient locomotives, increased electrification, and green power generation on the railways while ignoring the fact that road networks clogged with goods vehicles lead to higher fuel consumption across the board due to idling.
Rail freight has a low CO2 footprint but comes with its own challenges
So even working with conservative estimates, companies which take reducing their carbon emissions seriously need to look at switching to rail freight wherever practicable. And this is where the difficulties come in. There was a time when almost all production sites would have their own railheads: nowadays, freight facilities can be few and far between. What is more, trains too can get stuck in traffic or break down — and since each one may be twenty-to-thirty lorry-loads of goods, every incident can have major knock-on effects in supply chains. For companies which charter locomotives or own trucks, organising maintenance can be a high hurdle to take, too, as workshop time represents a large reduction in haulage capacity.
Given these issues, road often looks like the easier option. Yet if the challenges of rail freight are surmounted, both the environment and the company bottom line benefit, especially for producers of bulk goods. evian, for instance, has long recognised that putting palettes of bottled water on the rails makes sense: the company had its own private rail terminal built back in the 1950s and ships more than 60% of its output by train. “It’s a strategic choice in view of the fact that logistics make up around 40% of our global carbon footprint,” says a manager in charge of logistics at evian.
The Internet of Things to the rescue
Given the degree to which it is invested in rail transport, that evian and its haulage partner ID Logistics are looking to improve how it works should come as no surprise. That’s why IDEO has linked up with Everysens, a tech start-up in the field of supply chain optimisation, for a pilot project in which sensors are attached to wagons and transmit data on their location, speed, and environment to a central system.
If there is a hold-up or accident (the sensors also relay indicators such as temperature and sudden shunts), then notifications are automatically sent to the clients expecting delivery, allowing rail freight to reach customer service levels currently the preserve of road hauliers, many of whom have networked their fleets in a similar internet-of-things approach.
Each sensor runs autonomously and, depending on the amount of data it sends and collect, can be in service for up to eight years. The pilot project has seen them monitor 200 wagons travelling through five European countries over a period of five months, creating a real-time image of evian’s freight movements. In time, the data they provide can be analysed to help optimise — even predict — maintenance and reduce empty running.
Fully implemented as a system solution, these sensors could help persuade companies to use rail freight who have thus far been put off by its lack of traceability: once a shipment hits the rails, you can’t just “ring up the truck driver” to find out if there’s a traffic jam. There’s still a long (rail)road ahead: The manager in charge of logistics is frank about the fact that there is no significant return on investment yet. Most importantly, evian is a company which is willing invest to achieve a clear sustainability goal: less CO2 for every tonne of H2O.