Blog May 13, 2020

COVID-19 and Intermodal

By Nicola Byers

The world is rightly marking the heroic efforts of health and care workers in battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, keeping our daily lives functioning during the global lockdown is also due in no small part to people working in logistics. There are drivers delivering food ordered on-line to our doors, while others are making sure supermarkets and pharmacies remain stocked. Further back along the chain, logistics workers are supplying the necessary raw materials for the food we eat, the medications we need, and chemicals for the packaging systems that contain those ingredients.

In the bulk liquid logistics sector, companies have also stepped up to the plate to implement new practices first and foremost to safeguard the health of their own employees, but also to maintain services to their customers allowing the latter to continue operating as seamlessly as possible.

Hamburg-headquartered Hoyer quickly created an Emergency Taskforce at group level to oversee its actions, and co-ordinate with local emergency taskforces set up in each part of Hoyer’s business.

This initiative identified minimum skeleton staff for each part of the group’s operation, introduced remote working for as many roles and colleagues as possible, and agreed rotated attendance at work/working remotely from home for employees in similar roles.

In addition, Hoyer implemented shift system working that avoids overlap of people, with only written handovers, increased awareness of general hygiene rules and behaviour, introduced additional hygienic cleaning measures in the workplace, and issued additional personal protective equipment (PPE) where needed.

Netherlands-based Den Hartogh, for example, is offering a 24/7 dedicated driver service as a measure to reduce the potential for coronavirus cross infections between people.

Together with each customer, Den Hartogh assigns a team of dedicated drivers, such that the same known driver will operate at each customer’s site, working with the customer’s own local team in a safe and controlled environment. By implementing this service, it is possible to minimise directly the number of different drivers on-site, significantly reducing the risk of cross infection.

In the leasing sector, Ermewa Group, which owns tank lessor Eurotainer, is conducting fewer meetings, limiting travel, and implemented working from home to make it easier for staff members to take the time they need to care for themselves and their families.

From mid-March, all Seaco employees have been working from home and the company instructed all staff not to undertake any business travel, restricting all customer and supplier contact to telephone or virtual contact.

In Sweden, specialty chemical company Perstorp has switched part of its production with the aim of solving the Swedish healthcare system’s lack of disinfectant. Production capacity is up to 2 million litres a month. However, before the disinfectant can be packed into manageable bottles for healthcare, the ingredients are mixed in a large reactor. After this is completed, the contents are then filled into 25,000 litre tank containers owned by Scandi Bulk AB who then handle the transport between Perstorp and Lefab which fills the small bottles.

The finished hand and surface disinfectant is finally delivered to the Swedish National Board of Health, which distributes it between the regions.

Interestingly, limiting personal contact and practising social distancing could drive greater use of intermodal rail transport, switching container shipments away from road.

In an open letter to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) argued that shifting capacity freed up by reduced passenger train operations to freight rail would help significantly as it is substantially free of people-to-people contact, particularly for long-distance cross-border shipments.

Financial support to shippers making more use of intermodal rail transport, for example, would allow them to avoid road haulage, despite the higher costs of rail.

With Italy on the front line of the pandemic in its earliest days in Europe, several freight associations also wrote an open letter calling for more support for intermodal transport.

This stated that rail transport moves large quantities of goods over long distances, with fixed and monitorable routes, and with a limited use of staff that can be easily controlled from a health point of view.

In rail transport a train crew, with just two people, moves 40 semi-trailers, while a transhipment terminal that handles 20 pairs of trains daily, uses 60 railway staff to move goods that would otherwise require 800 truck drivers.

So while we continue to think of our health workers performing heroics on daily basis, let’s also spare a thought for our logistics heroes who are doing their utmost to keep our world functioning in these difficult times.