Digital transformation on the rail
Until the end of the 2010s, the logistics service provider RheinCargo still had to contact customers by e-mail and manually type out Excel lists when preparing offers for rail freight transport. Previous IT solutions in the area of logistics booking systems only ever depicted a section of the transport chain; friction between the individual systems led to consequential errors such as train delays or even complete cancellations. With Rail-Flow as a partner, distribution is now completely digital. Transport requests are received via a platform, and with "Automatic Order Entry", one of the many combinable modules of the Rail-Flow ecosystem, files can be read in and completed via an algorithm: One of numerous examples of how sales and processing have been made more efficient by the ecosystem.
"This then leaves more time for employees in personal customer contact," explains Dominik Fürste, founder and CEO of the Frankfurt/Main-based company Rail-Flow. During his research semester in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dominik Fürste was particularly inspired by the American freight rail system. Back in Germany and working for DB Cargo, the entrepreneur became aware of the sluggishness and inefficiency of European rail freight transport from the customer's point of view: Until then, there had only been isolated IT solutions, but no fully comprehensive marketplace.
The Rail Flow team around Dominik Fürste (bottom row, 3rd from right). © Rail-Flow
IT as the starting point for freight transformation
Launched in the summer of 2020, Rail-Flow fills precisely this gap - via a cloud-based platform that can be used to efficiently organize transport management for all participants in the value chain - such as freight forwarders, railroads and shippers. Almost all rail transport companies in Europe are now docked onto the Rail-Flow digital marketplace on the supplier side. Fürste illustrates the process with an example: a shipper can enter transport requests and specify the exact requirements, for example that a train is needed weekly on Monday at 9:00 a.m.. The underlying APEX technology from Oracle offers the possibility to feed the data into own systems via interfaces. Rail-Flow itself sees itself as a neutral platform and not as a market participant - the company provides the platform on which partners can conduct business and does not intervene in pricing.
The individual modules of the Rail Flow ecosystem © Rail-Flow
The project "Facilitating Intermodal Transport" (FIT) aims to simplify the booking of intermodal transports and is funded within the framework of the EU program "LIFE", a financial instrument of the EU for environmental and climate policy. Freight forwarders can book the transport of a trailer by rail via a digital entry portal. With the "Intermodal Capacity Broker", operators have a sales channel at their disposal with which free capacities can be indicated. On the other hand, freight forwarders also have the option of hiring truck carriers for the first and last mile. An algorithm searches for the best main rail route - i.e. the optimum connection between two terminals - and also sorts the suggestions according to price, transport duration and environmental friendliness. In addition, the CO2 footprint of the route is also calculated. Once the transport has been booked, it can be started; the last location of the trailer can be viewed online at any time.
RheinCargo is just one component of the network, which now comprises more than 350 customers; around 80 Rail Flow employees are working on the intelligent linking of road and rail. While they are already working from various European cities, Rail-Flow has no less than the ambition to become Europe's leading road-rail integrator and to open more sales offices abroad as well.
Rail-Flow enters the stage of rail freight at a time that could not have been more appropriate. The shortage of truck drivers, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, and ambitious CO2 targets in the freight forwarding industry call for a change of course in freight transport. Rail-Flow's "digital ecosystem" is designed to make the switch to the more environmentally friendly rail mode much more attractive.