Do the locomotion
Intra-port rail shuttles are gaining market share in ports in Europe, explains Alex Hughes
The flexibility of road haulage means that it has won modal share for cargo over rail, but where it can’t compete is with the economies of scale of rail on set routes. The same stands true for port-to-port moves of cargo, moving along the same route day-in, day-out to shift cargo between terminal at the same port, or from neighbouring port to port.
Moving cargo from a port to a nearby end user or distribution complex on rail makes little sense, since the manpower involved in aggregating assets to form a viable train load effectively undermines the financial case for doing so.
On mainline rail haulage, the individual wagon business was lost to road from the 1960s onwards, with few large operators nowadays able to offer such a service.
But rail’s niche is to either move large loads over long distances, or to operate point-to-point block trains, often, for example, conveying commodities such as coal between a port stockpile and a nearby electricity generating station.
Using trucks has become the norm, but it has come with its own major problems, congestion being the most obvious. To realise the earning potential of trucks means having to keep them on the road as long as possible while maximising the number of loads each driver is able to move on his or her shift. Congestion within the urban and suburban environment has gradually chipped away at the bottom line of some operators, making rail appear an increasingly popular option when optimum conditions present themselves.
The rail market, too, has changed radically over recent decades. Logistics operators, often owning few of their own assets, have entered several markets offering radical new services, hiring surplus locomotives, rolling stock and train crew from incumbent major operators.
Leasing companies have also sprung up that will consider short-term leases of marginal equipment in order to sweat assets to the full. Ports have also grown in size and container terminals have flourished, making entrepreneurs once again consider how to more economically move containers both within ports and also to neighbouring premises.
Those companies within the chemicals industry that have clusters of plants within very short distances of ports have also seen the advantage of keeping such hazardous materials off the road and therefore found an economic case to re-introduce rail.
Currently, this trend back towards short distance rail haulage is very much Eurocentric, especially given the high concentration of population around major urban centres and its concomitant road congestion.
Several large ports on the continent are now either looking at rail shuttles or already have them in service. Rotterdam is a notable example: on December 2, 2016, the number of rail services offered by PortShuttle Rotterdam effectively doubled. The initial week day service, connecting the container terminals on the Maasvlakte and Rail Service Center Rotterdam, which is in the Waal-Eemhaven area, was joined by a second service. This operates six times a week, offering onward connections to both Tilburg and Eindhoven. Trains, which first started running in September 2015, move boxes between Rotterdam’s various deep-sea terminals.
"In 2016, volumes were slightly lower than expected, partly due to the start-up problems at the new terminals," says Eric van Wijngaarden, chief executive of initiator De Boom Groep. "With the entry of the GVT Group of Logistics and the additional number of trips, we have managed to achieve a viable concept, and we will, in any case, be in business throughout 2017."
Significantly, De Boom Groep chief operational officer Martijn Loois told Port Strategy that plans already existed to start more services within the Port of Rotterdam in 2017 and even upgrade the number of roundtrips offered.
Director Wil Versteijnen explains that the rail connection allows customers to know that they can access both a fast and reliable service that trucks plying routes on the congested A15-A16 are simply unable to offer. “Our expectations [for the service] are high," says Mr Versteijnen.
Asked how fast PortShuttle could increase service levels, Mr Loois says: “We can increase services within 24 hours, which allows us to react to immediate needs.” PortShuttle Rotterdam contracts trains directly from TrainServices BV, which is a sister company of Portshuttle Rotterdam, which is itself part of the De Boom Groep, therefore there are no problems with sourcing either train crew or equipment. PortShuttle reached breakeven point in November 2016, following the introduction of trains 15 months earlier.
The success of the service is curious given that rail operators throughout Europe have often struggled to survive when moving individual wagons over very short distances. However, Mr Loois explains that, although PortShuttle operates shorter trains than those deployed on scheduled international services, it has the advantage that call times at the terminals are shorter too. “We are thus able to make a complete circuit of the Port of Rotterdam within 24 hours. So, our success is based on faster and shorter trains compared to the international standard.
“On one service, we can offer shipping lines the opportunity to move transhipment containers between terminals. For that reason, when we looked into expanding, we decided to continue our existing policy by introducing a second daily fast and short train as opposed to a longer one,” he says. He adds that to cover costs PortShuttle needs to generate a 65% load factor.
Another advantage of operating short and fast trains is that, to date, PortShuttle has been able to find the slots in the timetable it wants, with Mr Loois stressing that it is easier for terminals to fit in a smaller call than a larger one.
The De Boom Groep has also let it be known that it has ambitions to launch the PortShuttle concept in other ports in the Netherlands. Mr Loois told Port Strategy that the company is “currently looking at Moerdijk” and that attention is also being paid to potentially offering a similar service in the Port of Antwerp.
In terms of port size, he says that it is only the container market that is of interest, and there would need to be demand for a minimum of three round trips a week before serious consideration could be given to investment in a start up operation.
Adds Mr Loois: “In my opinion, this model works for distances under 150 km, although possibly as far as 200 km, but this depends on port size or possible volume.”
ANTWERP ENJOYS FRUITS OF RAIL SHUTTLES
At the Port of Antwerp, rail shuttles are also now an established reality. Katarina Stancova, advisor intermodality & hinterland, notes that, with the relocation of the MSC PSA European terminal, the majority of maritime container volumes have been consolidated at a single dock on the left bank of the River Scheldt.
“This has had a positive impact and has contributed to the consolidation of cargo volumes in one area of the port. However, in addition, it is important to consolidate the maritime and continental rail volumes. We therefore need to have regular and reliable rail shuttles operating between the left and right banks of the port,” she says.
As to whether the port authority should be involved in facilitating this type of service, Ms Stancova is in no doubt that it should: “We already provide support to the market players and key stakeholders in the port. And, at this moment in time, there are many initiatives under way in the port of Antwerp to improve rail shuttle services. There are currently rail services in place connecting the left and the right bank that have a proven track record.
“In this respect, I would mention rail shuttles provided by either Evonik or the Van Moer Group. Furthermore, the intermodal operator IFB, which also provides a daily connection between the right and the left bank, is taking further measures to enhance the rail service port-wide,” she says.
Above all, notes Ms Stancova, Antwerp's port authority supports projects that could enhance rail distribution in the port, particularly where they have a positive impact on the overall modal split. “Besides rail shuttles, we also need to mention our daily barge milk run system, which safeguards high frequent connections between terminals,” she says.
Finally, she says, the Port of Antwerp collaborates with all inland terminals in order to enhance and to further develop intermodal connectivity. Inland terminals such as Athus, Venlo, Duisburg and Kortrijk, she adds, demonstrate that rail can be a reliable, cost effective alternative to road even on distances of under 150 km.
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