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Rethinking Freight Transportation in Cities: A Smart Solution for An Old Problem

Combining a passion for applied mathematics and a motivation to improve the public transportation sector, new Telfer School of Management faculty, Professor Onur Ozturk, has developed a model to support Freight on Transit (FOT) using urban railways.

Professor Ozturk and his research collaborator, Telfer School Professor Jonathan Patrick, have published their findings in the prestigious European Journal of Operational Research.

FOT is an operational system that uses an existing public transit infrastructure to move goods within a city. A sustainable and clean way of transporting freight, the use of FOT on urban railways is in fact a rising trend in Europe. For instance, Paris has successfully implemented a system that allows the subway line to be shared between passenger trains and freight trains.

As FOT can reduce the number of heavy trucks that move goods in the city, the system has the potential to reduce pollution, traffic congestion, and even accidents. Considering the busy traffic of heavy trucks circulating everyday in the Ottawa downtown area, the development of a similar system for the future O’Train could make the Capital cleaner and safer.

We interviewed Professor Ozturk to find more about how their research model can help solve these old problems.

Why develop a model of freight on transit for urban railway?

Ultimately, we wanted to improve quality of city life by creating a model that can help companies and policymakers reduce green house effects, traffic congestion, and the risk of serious accidents on the roads.

Freight on Transit is a system with the potential to reduce some of these undesirable challenges because it can reduce the number of trucks driving through the city.

When did you first develop a model to transport freight on public railway?

During my appointment at Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, I was involved with a research institute that developed projects with industry collaborator with the purpose of creating more energy-efficient cities. One of these collaborators, Public Transport Paris, was looking for strategies to use the existing transit infrastructure to move goods within the city. I contributed to the project by developing a model to support their FOT system.

Could it be developed in Canada?

Many Canadian cities already have an infrastructure of railways that could be used to transport freight. We believe that there is no reason why FOT couldn’t be implemented using our urban railway systems such as, for example, the light rail transit that will be opening for service this year in Ottawa.

Who gains?

The French National Railways has been applying FOT for the last ten years. It’s estimated that the number of trucks in Paris has decreased by 10,000 per year, eliminating 280 tons in CO2 and 19 tons in Nitrogen oxide per year.

Reducing the number of heavy trucks circulating in the city not only makes our cities cleaner. It allows us to make a safer and more efficient public transport system that benefits drivers, public transport companies and private freight companies. Everyone gains!

Are there challenges?

Using the same tracks for both freight and commuter traffic requires careful planning for two reasons: 

1) Time constraint: If traffic on the train line has to be stopped to load goods, this is likely to cause a delay in the passenger train schedule. If the schedule of the next trains isn’t updated quickly enough, then passengers will have to wait longer and longer for the next train.

2) Safety: Supermarkets don’t usually allow their employees to organize products on shelves between 6 am and 9 pm, for their clients’ safety. Similarly, if passengers are waiting for the train on a platform then the same platform can’t be used for loading freight.

How can your research overcome these problems?

Operations research can help develop an efficient model for freight on urban railway because our mathematical tools can update the schedule without creating further delays for passengers.

If the timetables of passenger trains suddenly change, the approach we have developed can update itself quickly enough—in 2-3 minutes maximum.

Ozturk, Onur and Jonathan Patrick. (2018), “An optimization model for freight transport using urban rail transit,” European Journal of Operations Research. 267 (3), 1110-1121.