Freight Rail

Rail port shuttles growing trend in Europe

Container rail into Port Botany. Photo: Sydney Ports

An increasing number of short-distance trains to and from major European container ports are meeting the needs of both shippers and port operators, industry analyst Drewry says.

A briefing from Drewry Supply Chain Advisors suggests direct lines from sea ports to inland terminals meet both shippers’ preference for fast pre-carriage and post-carriage, and port operators’ need to minimise landside congestion.

“In recent years, container ports have struggled with road transport pollution, yard and gate congestion, sudden peaks in container volumes and the need to improve inland connectivity,” Drewry said.

“Meanwhile, shippers and carriers are trying to manage supply chains at a low cost and with enough flexibility.”

In the past, the analyst explained, flexibility for shippers in Europe has normally meant using trucks to take the container to or from the port. This is because shippers traditionally found rail transport to be too slow, too infrequent or not cost competitive for distances under 300km.

“But rail container shuttles to and from major box ports are now handling large volumes of containers and replacing the omnipresent trucks even on distances of 300km or less,” Drewry said.

“The fact that port operators such as Hutchison and TCB are acting as train operators of some of these rail shuttles is not a surprise: it is in their interest to evacuate big amounts of import containers out of their terminals as fast as possible and to extend their hinterland.”

At a recent industry conference, Port of Rotterdam senior business manager Arwin Stehouwer said landside requirements for a typical 18,000 teu* container ship at the Dutch mega-port are around 19 trains (74 teu each), 32 barges (97 teu each) and 1,560 trucks (average of 1.6 teu each).

Without the container trains, Stehouwer explained, the number of trucks would increase to about 2,400 per vessel call, meaning just 19 trains can replace 840 truck visits.

Drewry rail table
(click to enlarge)

“Most individual shippers do not have a large enough volume of containers to justify a dedicated container train,” Drewry continued, “but either the shipping line, the terminal operator or a train operator can aggregate volumes and provide common-user trains to shippers.”

The analyst reported that shippers who have tried these common-user rail shuttles like them.

“The critical requirements of shippers using short-distance rail container shuttles are cost, reliability and flexibility.

“By using rail, the container delivery product offered by trucks can be matched or even improved. Once the trains are frequent enough, the speed argument usually disappears. Storage at the inland terminal can even increase the flexibility of supply chains.”

While no port in Australia has ever seen an 18,000 teu ship, ports all around the country are pushing to get more containers on rail. Direct rail links from ports to new and existing intermodal terminals are key to this, and the Drewry research would suggest that in the long term, importers and exporters will benefit.

*A twenty-foot equivalent unit (teu) refers to a twenty-foot shipping container, or the equivalent of one twenty-foot container. A forty-foot container therefore counts as 2 teu.

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