If considering using rail as a part of an integrated supply chain, it is vital to first understand how the product(s) to be moved can be done so using multi-modal operations. Factors to take into account include the volume, tonnage and dimensions of the product (there is not always a precise match between road and rail equipment), loading methods (unitised, palletised etc), frequency of despatch, operational days and timings, loading and delivery times (end to end, including rail) as well as source and destination.
The economics of using rail freight are generally skewed towards longer distance and/or larger volume movements. Network Rail is available as an independent adviser.
Volumes that can fill a train are not necessary as an individual customers container can be accommodated by operators, but the economics need to be carefully investigated. It may be more economic to work through a logistics service provider in the case of smaller loads as its buying power with aggregated loads can lead to savings.
Conventional wisdom has been that rail flows are only competitive with road at distances in excess of 200 miles. However, this is not necessarily so these days given the effects of road congestion on both cost and quality of service.
For example, in Scotland a flow runs from Grangemouth to Elderslie that is only 30 miles but works as a logistics option due to the locally congested road network. Equally, train services from the Port of Southampton gain massively in their advantages over road when moving goods north of Birmingham, instead of points to the south of it. However, trunking by rail to Birmingham, then back by road to points south can still work logistically. It is the local congestion on the road network that determines suitability, not just the raw number of miles.
The type of shipment needs to be considered in terms of any special requirements such as chilled, perishable or hazardous goods and how they can be handled by rail, including any storage necessary to transportation and the inter-modal transfer. Rail is usually well suited to transporting these kinds of shipments. Just as with road, facilities and specialist providers exist: these need to be checked out in the planning of a shipment or flow.
Location and access to the rail network needs to be considered. Access to the rail freight network can be by using your own sidings (or someone else’s nearby) or by hauling by road to the nearest rail freight terminal.
Factors to take into account include: proximity to major rail freight interchanges and main trunk road networks connecting to them; environmental restrictions on access to these terminals; and their times of opening and operation.
The further you are based from such a terminal the more costs from a final road-based leg will go up, increasing the likelihood that making use of road for the whole journey will be more cost effective.
Rail can cope with irregular loads – both in terms of size and timing. This is especially true of the services that are offered to individual consignments. But it is fair to say that rail becomes an increasingly effective option when freight movements are more regular, and where you have more advanced knowledge of the shipments you need to make.