‘Rail Connected’ gives greater insight into port of Rotterdam train composition

8 January 2024
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‘Rail Connected’ – the programme that streamlines information-sharing between carriers, rail operators and terminals – is running well. This spring, users will even be able to follow the composition of trains in terms of wagons, locomotive and containers. Most of the Rotterdam rail-freight sector has now joined up, with participants deciding to extend the programme for a further two years.

Project team Rail Connected
Project team Rail Connected.

The ‘Rail Connected’ growth programme arose from the Rail-freight Transport Package of Measures drawn up to promote freight transport by rail. The programme is funded by the Ministry of Infrastructure & Water Management and the Port of Rotterdam Authority. The Port of Rotterdam Authority coordinates the programme, which is developed together with market parties.

The aim is to use digitalisation to streamline information-sharing between carriers, rail operators and terminals, thus reducing manual operations. The first step has been taken: pre-reporting of trains. Once a week, everyone submits a digital report stating which trains are planned for the coming week. Step 2 – ‘train composition’ – enters final testing in January. That means greater clarity in a digital environment on the composition of freight trains arriving and departing Rotterdam in terms of locomotive, wagons and containers.

The Cabooter Group was recently the 25th party to join Rail Connected. Together with APM Terminals Maasvlakte II, Combi Terminal Twente-Rotterdam, Contargo, Danser Containerline, DB Cargo Nederland, DistriRail, DP World Intermodal, ERS Railways, Hutchison Ports Europe Intermodal, Haeger & Schmidt Logistics, Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam, KombiRail Europe, Lineas, LTE Logistics & Transport, Neska Container Line, Optimodal, PortShuttle, Rail Force One, Raillogix, Rail Service Center Rotterdam, Rotterdam Rail Feeding, RTB Cargo, Rotterdam World Gateway and Trimodal Europe, this means the Rotterdam rail-freight sector is largely covered.


These are important steps, according to Rémon Kerkhof, Deputy Director at Optimodal, a logistics services provider that focuses on European container transport over water, rail and road. “Although this doesn’t represent a great deal of added value for us as operators, it is essential to the rail sector as a whole. We’ve started. The momentum is there, across the entire sector. It would be a shame to stop now, especially if you look at the reported growth forecasts.”

Arno van Rijn agrees. The Commercial Executive of terminal operator Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam was already involved in the predecessors of Rail Connected: HaROLD and OnTrack. “At ECT, we’ve been aware for many years of how important digitalisation is for the future when it comes to ensuring competitive rail options. The aforementioned programmes were very ambitious. But the steps we are now taking within Rail Connected are more manageable. This is generating results, and is much more accessible for all parties. So we’re building a solid foundation.”


“We are improving efficiency and quality,” Van Rijn adds. “We are no longer transcribing PDFs to our own system, with all the unavoidable errors that that entails. Obviously that’s just the start. There is still a lot to be achieved, such as predictive information on expected train arrival times.”

Key to every digitalisation process is to use existing interface standards. What is meant by the terms and definitions used? “You have to speak the same language. That’s essential,” explains Gerwin Roke, Application Manager at DB Cargo Nederland. “The European Union Association for Railways (ERA) already has standards for consignment note and train data, yet you still see differences between, for instance, how terminals and carriers code locations in their systems. But we’ll gradually resolve these disparities. The atmosphere at Rail Connected is upbeat. Everyone’s doing their bit, regardless of how big or small they are. The perspective of greater efficiency, transparency and reliability beckons.”

ETA implementation

“We have reached the critical mass necessary to take some fundamental steps,” according to Suzanne Smit, Programme Manager on behalf of the Port of Rotterdam Authority. “Pre-reporting is up and running. Train composition is almost ready for launch. In 2024, we will also be initiating the implementation of ‘estimated time of arrival’ (ETA). We have now devised how to do that, but execution is going to be quite complicated. Traction suppliers need to add the train number in MCA Rail, so that it can be linked to the ‘path’ via the RailNetEurope Train Information System. Sensors in the track enable ProRail to monitor and update the ETA along these paths. This relates specifically to ProRail’s so-called ‘managed area’, as at the moment, this information is not available for the ‘non-managed area’. However, ProRail is currently planning further cameras and sensors, so that all routes provide information. We are currently in talks with them about this.”

According to Smit, good progress is being made on digitising manual operations. “But that does not actually mean we’re there yet. In 2024, we want to draw up an integrated plan of how we could use the digitised processes, and the data derived as a result, to optimise loading, train paths and terminal utilisation. All in the spirit of Nextlogic, the integrated planning platform for processing inland shipping containers in the port of Rotterdam.”

More streamlined and reliable

“That would of course be a great step,” remarks ECT’s Arno van Rijn. “To improve the competitive position of rail-freight transport, our clients consider reliability to be top priority. And we support everything that contributes to the timely deployment and removal of trains. It is currently the case that inefficiencies in the chain tend to be borne by one party, with other parties benefiting from greater flexibility and efficiency. We need to redress that imbalance. It needs to be more streamlined and reliable. A more integrated approach would certainly help.”

Rémon Kerkhof of Optimal also considers that a good solution. “We now have to coordinate everything 1-to-1 with each terminal and other parties separately. That often leads to compromises that can be suboptimal. Ultimately we want the system to optimise the process. This should in principle be easier to do with the rail network than for inland shipping. There are after all fewer parameters to factor in. Railways are by definition less flexible. I’m not downplaying this. The launch will demand quite a lot from people, but that was no different with Nextlogic in regard to inland shipping. And it is now working increasingly better in that regard. And we’ll make it work for the railway, too!”