Blog October 2, 2015

Can technology rescue Europe’s congested intermodal connections?

By Nicola Byers

An expert has warned that Europe will run out of storage capacity for containers at inland terminals unless there is a ‘revolution’ in intermodal technology.

Southern Germany is a particular area of concern, rail freight expert Gerhard Oswald told last week’s Container Trade Europe conference in Hamburg. Rail connections in southern Germany account for over 50% of the traffic to and from Germany’s seaports.

“There simply is very little space in southern Germany to develop inland terminals, which is why we have to look for new solutions,” Oswald told the conference. Pressure is being piled on inland terminals by ever-growing container volumes at ports in North Europe, which are forecast to grow further, he said.

Oswald has analysed overland container traffic between the North Rhine Westphalia region and German ports. His researched shows that in 2011 around 450,000 teu was transported in the corridor, of which 250,000 teu was transported on trucks and around 160,000 teu by rail.

He told the conference that he expects traffic in the same corridor to reach 750,000 teu by 2030, of which 450,000 teu will be carried by road and just over 200,000 teu by rail – which will result in more land-side congestion, unless something is done.

Oswald’s projections are already being realised in Hamburg, Europe’s largest rail port. Container volumes being transported by rail in and out of the port are roughly equal to those going to and from Bremerhaven, Rotterdam and Antwerp combined.

Rail volumes transiting Hamburg are expected to grow in coming years, but Oswald said he expects the bulk of the growth to be taken up by road transport, which will worsen the existing congestion in and around the port.

Lack of action

Recent statistics, however, suggest that taking containers off Europe’s congested roads and transferring them to transport by rail – or by inland waterway – will be a tough job. Little modal change has been seen over the past few years.

In 2012, 74.5% of cargo travelled by road in EU member states, a level that has remained almost unchanged since 2007. Shares of rail (18.6%) and inland waterways (6.9%) in freight transport remained almost unchanged over the five-year period. Road transport carried over 90% of cargo in Cyprus, Malta, Ireland, Greece and Spain, while rail dominated in the Baltic countries. Ten European member states, including Malta and Portugal, either do not utilise or have inland waterways.

European Union policy, however, has been confused and unfocused. In 2001 and 2011, the European Commission issued white papers, aimed at cutting emissions from road transport by (among other options) switching to transport by rail and inland waterways. However, in 2011, EU transport ministers abandoned European Commission targets to cut transport emissions by 60% by 2050. This reduces the incentive for shippers to transfer cargo to low-emission transport modes because there is no political imperative.

Uneven playing field

Intermodal connections will remain inefficient, roads will remain congested and rail underutilised unless investment is made to rail infrastructure and intermodal terminals.

Road transport currently has an unfair cost advantage over rail, which is hindered by conflicting national administrative rules that complicate cross-border transport and increase the cost of rail freight (until standardised EU rules are adopted, that is).

Distance-based charging and external expenses such as pollution, noise, damage to roads, congestion (etc) are currently not applied to road transport, which is still much cheaper, less technically complex and less stringently regulated than rail transport. In this sense, the playing field remains uneven.

Possible solutions

Hamburg’s congested hinterland, however, has had some benefits in that it has inspired (or perhaps forced) innovations in intermodal technology to absorb and manage container congestion. Gerhard Oswald thinks increased cooperation between road and rail is the way forward.

Oswald is developing a pilot project in Germany of the RailRunner concept, which was developed in the US. The German project is still in development but the pilot scheme should hopefully launch in 2017.

The RailRunner system is based around a specially designed rail bogie with the suspension, articulated axles, disc brakes and hydraulic damping features similar to those of a truck chassis. The tyred highway wheels are raised pneumatically to clear the track, transforming the road vehicle to a rail vehicle in a matter of minutes (here’s a demo video) Crucially, the system allows containers to be loaded on to freight trains without the need for cranes or reachstackers, which can be a bottleneck in an intermodal terminal’s container handling capacity. In turn, this also reduces the area of land needed for inland terminals and therefore the cost of their construction and maintenance.

As the RailRunner concept shows, new technology and equipment has a role to play in easing congestion and increasing efficiency in intermodal connections – and demand is certainly there in the congested port hinterlands of northern Europe.