Supercharging freight: Integrating powerful technology to boost innovation, reliability, and sustainability

In conversation with Maggie Simpson OBE, Director General, Rail Freight Group


Published: 7 March 2023

By Ruby Savill-Downs

Ahead of Accelerate: Rail this March, we spoke to Rail Freight Group’s Director General to uncover her visions for 2023 for the ever-developing freight sector. Maggie Simpson OBE shares her thoughts on the integration of freight and technology, and what this means for the rail industry as a whole…

Reflecting on the past year, what have been the freight sector’s biggest challenges?

Rail freight is an agile sector working to respond to the demands of its customers, but the last year has been particularly challenging. Supply chain disruption in China and across the globe has caused issues in the UK, and economic pressures have affected demand for goods, both in the consumer and bulk sectors. Industrial action in the railways, posts and customers have also added challenges. Yet despite this, the industry has continued to invest and develop, with new services and terminals helping to grow the market.

Why is technology and its integration into freight so important?

Our customers need productive and cost-effective services that meet the demands of their supply chains. Today, rail is an increasingly important part of business logistics, but rail must innovate and bring in new technology to modernize the offer, drive down costs and integrate with other modes.

“Rail must innovate and bring in new technologies”

What improvements in reliability and sustainability is the sector hoping the achieve through this program, and why are they necessary?

Rail has made huge steps forward but there is more to do. For example, many of the standards and processes that we rely on were written decades ago. Work to modernize these is showing how extra capacity can be created, and train productivity improved through better systems and data. Equally, equipping locomotives and wagons with digital technology is supporting better maintenance and network safety.

What lessons can freight take from other areas of the rail industry when it comes to technology?

Other countries are also investing in digital technology, and we have Rail Freight Group members who have developed systems for other economies that are also finding use here. This includes terminal management systems, digital systems and so on. Projects such as digital signalling are also supporting freight as well as passenger services as they are rolled out in the UK.

On the flip side, what lessons can rail take from freight when it comes to technology?

Being in the private sector, freight can take investment decisions on longer horizons than some passenger operators, and this is supporting investment in new bi-mode locomotives, new technologies in depots and on trains and in decarbonisation. Freight customers are from all across the economy so we can also learn lessons from them, for example in the automation we see in warehouses.

“We need new ideas in the freight sector… to reduce freight carbon and work to net zero”

How will the Freight Innovation Fun help to support efforts to reach the all-important net-zero target?

We need new ideas in the freight sector, and we know that often SMEs have great ideas which are hard to develop and bring to market in freight. So, this fund is an ideal way of developing ways to reduce freight carbon and work to net-zero, whilst also supporting SMEs to increase their knowledge of the freight sector.

What is your vision for the supercharging of freight in 2023?

We know that customers are keen to use more rail and are investing to do so. Although there are many challenges for the sector, that ambition will drive the sector to delivery for its customers. Despite the many challenges that the railways and the economy have, I am sure that we will have a successful year ahead.

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Maggie Simpson OBE

Director General, Rail Freight Group

Maggie Simpson is Director General of the Rail Freight Group, the representative body for rail freight in the UK. Since joining in 2005 she has worked to promote growth in rail freight and to support member companies of the Group in their activities.

Want to hear more from Maggie? Join her at Accelerate: Rail being held at Hilton Tower Bridge, London on 21 March, where she will be talking more about mobilising road to rail, and putting freight at the forefront of transportation.

Check out our website for more details.

Accelerate: Rail 2022

Hungry for more insightful content? Why not join us at Accelerate: Rail on 21 March at Hilton Tower Bridge, London, where Maggie will be joined by C-suite executive from the UK’s biggest TOCs and industry bodies, discussing everything from navigating GBR reform, to pushing forward with sustainability initiatives, and how to tackle the recruitment challenges in rail!