Rail Freight Terminal Innovation and nCOVID-19
The nCOVID-19 pandemic has clearly emphasized the need for automated systems. Global, domestic and local supply chains have been disrupted due to the pandemic. But in such difficult times catering to adequate or in some cases heavy demand of certain commodities through undisrupted supply chain network becomes essential as has been evident. This requires efficient freight transportation and smart information technology system functional with minimum physical human interaction. The terminal is the focal point between road and rail and can combine the advantages of railways (mass efficiency), trucks (flexibility) and regional storages (buffering) and even distribution and value-added services. Terminal is the point where maximum human interaction takes place in a supply chain. In the present scenario where social distancing is of utmost necessity, a terminal can become the hotspot for the transmission of the virus. But reducing manpower to maintain social distancing in a terminal can greatly impact the handling capacity of the terminal and thereby affect the supply chain. This may seriously impact the availability of essential commodities like foodgrains, milk, medicines, groceries, medical supplies, etc.
Heavily populated countries of South Asia like India cannot afford to have fully automated terminals not only because of the investment and sophisticated robotic technology required, but also because such automated systems will have a big impact on the employment provided by the freight and logistics sector. Therefore, semi-automated systems which can cater to heavy demand efficiently and have a manageable impact on the employment market become essential. Such systems will help freight and logistics operators to work profitably and also generate enough employment. The author has been conducting a study to provide an efficient terminal management strategy and increase the freight market share of railways in India and the world over. The author proposes the optimum use of conveyors for handling goods transported in covered wagons and parcel vans.
Railways are considered environment-friendly and economical, especially for the transport of bulk goods. In India, rail consumes 75% to 90% less energy for freight traffic compared to roadways. Increasing the share of railways in freight traffic leads to a decrease in health damage costs of Rs. 3.57 million per day. In India, the overall share of freight of Indian Railways (IR) has come down from 86% in 1950–51 to 30% in 2018–19. Around 60% of IR’s revenue comes from freight traffic. While the railways retain their relative advantage mainly in natural resources and intermediary goods markets in which there are large volume movements and relatively low value-to-weight ratios, they tend to lose it in the case of items with high and increasing value-to-weight ratios. In recent years, the changing composition of Indian manufacturing sector has lent greater weight to the second category of freight traffic, and the relative decline in the demand for railway services. Automated systems in public terminals are minimal or absent, hugely affecting essential goods like grains, fertilizers, sugar, etc. Many large cement and factories use conveyor systems for wagon loading (mostly one at a time, which is not much efficient) but no such system exist at the destination terminals. The current ways of goods handling operations at railway terminals also increases the fatigue level of workers.
Containers have transformed global supply chains but are more profitable for end-to-end delivery. But certain supply chains necessitates multiple stoppages from origin to destination for loading/unloading, which may be economical for the customers of transport systems or operators. Currently intermodal transfer costs are difficult to reduce because of the number of times the container needs to be handled and stored (storage-to-hostler, hostler-to-rail, rail-to-storage, storage-to-truck, and truck-to-distribution centre). Automation in container handling is slow and direct transfer to/from truck/train needs synchronization and is difficult to achieve. Unless container stuffing/de-stuffing takes place within the confines of rail intermodal yards, an additional truck trip is incurred from a yard to distribution centre/warehouse. This is suitable for large companies (who have necessary facilities at their factories/premises) but not when a single container contains goods of multiple customers (e.g. for courier companies).
When a segment of the supply chain becomes unreliable, the whole chain is adversely affected. Rail delays during transfer, which the trucking industry does not have to contend with, include missed connections between railroads, delays in unloading a train, an inability to get the desired unit on the first train out and locating miss-parked commodities at the terminal. Supply chains react to these delays by building an extra day and increasing the cost of the commodity. Presently in most terminals (goods sheds) trains have to wait for the goods to be unloaded into the trucks and vice versa, which leads to overall traffic congestion and also affects passenger train movement.
The author has designed conveyor layouts and the operational framework for such an Automated Freight Management System (AFMS). The concept was acknowledged by some global experts at the World Conference on Transport Research held at IIT Bombay (Mumbai) in May 2019. Conveyors can be configured in any number of lanes and levels and can be operated independently or as part of a complete automation system. They can be flexible, custom designed to handle specific commodities and heterogeneous goods, within a certain range of variations. They can be designed to handle uniform packages of cement, grains, fertilizers and non-uniform packages of e-commerce, fast moving consumer goods (FMGC), pharmaceuticals, fruits and vegetables, electronics. Given the present threat of nCOVID-19 the proposed system will also minimize the need of human interaction in godowns and can also eliminate the need of godowns and warehouses in some cases.
The conveyor belt loading/unloading operations will allow efficient running of multi-point trains, train to train transfers. Another advantage of adding AFMS enabled IFT is that it allows trucks and trains to operate independently and lowers truck turn time thereby eliminating terminal congestion and diesel emissions problems. The AFMS enabled conveyor belt system will be able to make up time at terminal stage of the operation. Trains that arrive late can be unloaded and loaded in order that they then leave again on time. This kind of flexibility ensures that both up and down the supply chain, logistics partners are not adversely affected by a delay to rail running times either inbound or outbound to an IFT. Faster turn round time of wagons and automated transfer ensures trucks and wagons are back on the road and rail in a timely fashion, reducing the total number required in the fleet and aiding operational efficiency. Post Covid-19, there lays an opportunity for IR to tie up with trucking companies and India Post to offer complete logistics solutions. AFMS facilitates diversification of goods carried for revenue generation from multiple customer segments. AFMS enabled Integrated Freight Terminals will be at a competitively advantageous position of a unique selling proposition (USP), since some specific services can be offered which can only be copied by the competitors (roadways and airways or other terminal operators) with great difficulty.
Covid-19 made Indian Railways change traditional traffic routes, wherever required to aggregate small parcels and operate parcel cargo trains for transporting critical medical equipment and food commodities. This shows a way forward for IR to bring in flexibility in freight operations. With average freight speeds set to more than double on the dedicated freight corridors, Indian Railway stands on the verge of unprecedented opportunities, towards customer service, the likes of which it had never experienced before in its 167-year old history, of serving customers at very high velocities through Automated Freight Management Systems enabled Integrated Freight Terminals. Moreover, faster freight service means faster turnover and return on investment. India's dream of becoming a manufacturing hub to the world may well remain a dream if the logistics infrastructure does not keep pace with the growth in other sectors in order to enhance the country's existing cost arbitrage.
(The author is an independent researcher and member of World Conference on Transport Research Society. The views expressed in the article are his own.)
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