Smart Wagon, Innovative design for rail freight transport

Automatic Rail Freight Transport System – Analysis of Transport Costs

The study developed the feasibility analysis of an innovative and automatic rail freight transport system and elaborated a business plan to assess its economic and financial sustainability.

The aim of introducing automatic vehicles for rail freight transport is that of enhancing the internal efficiency of the production system (e.g., in intermodal terminals and logistic centres), by reducing the operating costs and vehicles manoeuvring. Also, the use of automatic vehicles allows to optimise the shipment of cargos from intermodal terminals and logistic centres to transport networks to which they are connected.

Further to this, the advantage of using automatic vehicles is twofold. First, automatic vehicles support higher safety levels of the operations avoiding internal collisions (i.e., vehicle-to-vehicle communication and knowledge of the relative position). Second, they reduce the environmental impact, optimising manoeuvring and needs of energy and fuel.

The analysis developed an estimation of the operating costs of three scenarios, considering rail-road intermodal transport of semi-trailers, and compared them against the “as-is” situation as follows:

  • wagon towed by a manoeuvring bogie equipped with a traditional coupling system;
  • automatic manoeuvring wagon equipped with a traditional coupling system;
  • automatic manoeuvring wagon equipped with an automatic coupling system.


The estimation of the costs shows that there exists a competitive advantage for transporting by rail. With respect to road transport, the difference of cost of transporting by rail increases for longer trips and if a higher level of automation is introduced.

The most important advantage of the Smart Wagon system, compared to conventional transport systems, can be obtained when specific conditions hold, namely in contexts such that the demand of freight transport is weak and spread.

For example, within ports characterized by a multiplicity of connected internal terminals, the Smart Wagon system would allow to develop transport solutions that merge the demand generated in each internal terminal and share the final destination.

Some aspects deserve consideration before implementing an automatic manoeuvring wagon system. First, the cost of feeder legs, which is often a critical cost component for choosing intermodal transport (i.e., the magnitude of the cost is proportional to the length of the trip). Second, with respect to transporting only via road, one should take into account the longer time of the trip, due to two modal shifts (i.e., road-rail and viceversa) and additional waiting times before the train run.

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Project Description


2017 – 2018

Marco Brambilla