Rail Freight Group

The humble wagon. Without it there would be no rail freight moved, yet in discussions about our sector they are often overlooked. New wagons arrive without the showbiz launch afforded to new traction, and innovations and developments frequently go unmentioned.

Recently the Rail Freight Group decided to do something about this, so with colleagues at the Private Wagon Federation we held our first wagon forum for members, to discuss the key issues and opportunities for the sector, including how we can better promote this important part of our industry. Some key themes emerged highlighting the investment made in wagons, the case for growth and the future case for innovation.

Best estimates suggest that there are around 15,000 wagons in active use in the UK. The age profile is quite wide, with a few wagons well beyond their expected asset life, many recently purchased new wagons and a peak at around 20 years old. As well as specialist wagons for certain sectors such as automotive and steel, the fleet is broadly made up of hoppers, box wagons and intermodal flat wagons. Within each type there are of course different designs, for example intermodal wagons come with different deck heights and lengths and hoppers will vary depending on the commodity they are conveying.

The ownership of wagons is also varied. Many end customers own or lease their own fleets, particularly in the bulk markets, but the freight operators also have hopper and box wagons and are more likely to be the owner of intermodal wagons. There is an increasing trend to lease wagons rather than own outright, and many of the wagon manufacturers offer a complete package including financing and maintenance. And wagons do not come cheap, at around £2.5 million for a set, compared with the cost of a locomotive at £4-5 million.

As always in the UK, the cost of wagons is at least partly determined by our small infrastructure; the standard European wagon does not fit through our platforms for a start. This means there is less economy of scale, and we cannot take advantage of the wider pool of wagons available on the Continent, where there have often been speculative builds. This makes it harder to manage peaks and troughs in demand, and also means that manufacturers will only build wagons where there is a guaranteed long-term contract.

We are also encouraged to use low track force bogies, which are better for the track but much more expensive to procure, although it is of note that Network Rail’s most recent procurement of engineering wagons did not require them!

Despite these challenges, though, the wagon market remains buoyant and at our forum there was much discussion on technology and innovation. Over recent decades, the design changes we have seen have increased payload in bulk wagons, with newer fleets able to take up to 102 tonnes compared to the 80 tonnes of their predecessors. In intermodal, new designs have reflected the changes in global container shipping, with platform lengths more suitable for a market dominated by 40ft units. The current innovations are around data enabling wagons and understanding how this can help drive efficiency.

In mainland Europe the pressure has been on identifying wagon location, so GPS (global positioning system) and RFID (radio frequency identification) fitment has been a priority and management systems have been introduced to support these. In the UK, the TOPS and TRUST programs provide this information already, so it is seen as being a lower priority, but innovations which help to streamline maintenance and generate cost efficiency are of interest, and sensor technology and data systems are key to that.

Today wagon maintenance is often done in yards and sidings. This is good for maximising time in traffic and avoids ‘empty miles’ to and from maintenance facilities. However, it has obvious disadvantages for maintenance staff who need to travel to different locations to perform their tasks and tends to focus on remediation rather than preventative maintenance. There is therefore interest in looking at how data can improve the diagnostics of upcoming faults, improving availability and reducing the need for interventions at the lineside. Wagon scanners are also being prototyped which can further improve real-time diagnostics.

Mix of wagons: GBRf’s No 66761 leaving Southampton’s Western Docks for Trafford Park on 23 October 2019. The payload includes 40ft and 20ft boxes.
Brian Perryman

Data enabled wagons are in their infancy, but the discussions showed a number of areas where there could be cost efficiencies for the sector in pursuing this technology. This is an area that needs to be developed as wagon designs evolve. With continued growth forecast for rail freight, having the right wagons at the right price will always remain one of the most important areas.

An opinion column of the Rail Freight Group, www.rfg.org.uk