How a 19th Century Relic Can Help Solve 21st Century Issues

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Trains are poised to be the next big thing in sustainability. Belgium startup Ovinto fills the industry’s technology void to make rail cargo sexy again.

Google Earth view of Kharga
Image via Google Earth; click to enlarge

Egypt, 2006: A freight train crossing the country’s Western Desert never arrives at its destination, a port on the Red Sea. Rumors circulate that thieves stole more than 93 miles of tracks and the vehicle, unable to move, was left stranded somewhere in the Kharga oasis region. Investigators have no communication with the driver and the train is quickly forgotten, lost in the desert’s shifting sands for eight years.

By the time Egyptian authorities announce that they have spotted the missing train and a plan to recover it, the rail industry was experiencing increasing pressure for massive transformations.

“Everything in rail cargo is still being handled like 100 years ago — by manual actions, no integration, and minimal monitoring,” says Belgian innovator Frederick Ronse. “When we talk about supply chain logistics, everything is completely connected and automated today: road, air and maritime transport. Everything except for trains!”

Ronse never considered himself a train fanatic and never thought his life’s work would be defined by disrupting an entire industry. But he knew it was time to act when he realized that some of these challenges could be easily addressed with a little help from technology. “Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to optimize a Henry Ford factory, but in 2019,” he says with a smile.

The Case for Train Transportation

Temperatures are rising, roads are overcrowded, and resources are becoming increasingly strained. But trains, which first made their appearance in the 19th century, may be just the answer to some of these 21st century pains. Trains are arguably the greenest and most sustainable form of transportation, burning less fuel per ton-mile than other vehicles. Ronse explains that if we were able to put more cargo on rail, we’d immediately — and drastically — lower the amount of trucks on our roads, easing traffic congestion and lowering carbon emissions.

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