Laying down tracks

"The level of rail use in Spanish ports is very low, so any investment in machinery or software will have a much slower return than in other areas of the logistics chain," Gustavo Ferrer, Port of Noatum Container Terminal Valencia
Simulating: INFORM’s SyncroTESS software optimises rail yard operations at HHLA’s CTA
Simulating: INFORM’s SyncroTESS software optimises rail yard operations at HHLA’s CTA
Tracking up: CTA expanded its rail terminal from seven to nine tracks, raising annual rail throughput to 930,000 teu
Tracking up: CTA expanded its rail terminal from seven to nine tracks, raising annual rail throughput to 930,000 teu
Multi-move: Noatum Container Terminal Valencia handles 40 intermodal trains per week
Multi-move: Noatum Container Terminal Valencia handles 40 intermodal trains per week

Fine tuning port-rail operations is key to realising the full potential of rail traffic, reports Alex Hughes

As roads become increasingly more congested, the role of rail in providing a link between inland customers and ports becomes ever more crucial. Fine-tuning port-rail operations therefore becomes key and often involves calling in outside experts to ensure that improvements to rail operations will match reality.

In Germany, HHLA’s Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) has been using INFORM’s SyncroTESS software to optimise its rail yard operations since 2002. Last year, it made use of the Rail Crane Optimisation module to test configurations of its rail terminal to accommodate two additional tracks, expanding from seven to nine tracks, each 740 metres long, and raising annual throughput on the rail side from 790,000 teu to 930,000 teu.

Leading the project on behalf of INFORM was Dr Eva Savelsberg. Speaking with Port Strategy, she says that the company has a deep understanding of container terminal processes, having spent 25 years fine tuning operations of such terminals around the world.

“We were able to extend this knowledge to CTA as part of the simulation consultation done on the rail terminal upgrade project,” she says.

The latest generation of INFORM’s Rail Crane Optimisation module features the most recent ‘Agile Optimisation’ algorithms, which INFORM claims deliver increased optimisation performance. The most recent version of the tool also provides the ability to readily adjust to changing terminal layouts and capacity to handle additional rail cranes.

According to Dr Savelsberg, simulations were run for each of the construction scenarios with each variation taking into consideration alternative requirements for the loading/unloading transhipment slots. These considered multiple factors, such as rail track closures, the accessibility of transhipment slots, the availability of chassis and tractors due to increased travel distances, and the quantity of both trains and load units.

“In total, we compiled nine alternative scenarios and ran 299 simulations against these scenarios, later presenting the average results to CTA for review,” says Dr Savelsberg. The primary goal, she adds, was to assess whether CTA would be able to maintain a good level of customer service given the various restrictions and construction scenarios that would be encountered during work.

Spanish system

Noatum Container Terminal Valencia (NCTV) takes a similar approach to rail optimisation. Here, 40 intermodal trains are handled each week, split equally between inbound and outbound services. The main destination served is Madrid, with trains running through to intermodal terminals at Coslada, Azuqueca, Abroñigal and Vicálvaro. In addition, other services go north, to hubs at both Valladolid and Zaragoza.

The main objective, notes terminal director Gustavo Ferrer, is able to ensure that trains are handled in an efficient manner: “All our operations are managed by an operating system that optimises all our resources in an efficient way. For this, it is necessary that all the information that we receive from our clients is accurate and arrives complete in time and form.”

Rail handling activities are not overseen by a separate software package; instead, NCTV makes use of the railway module that forms part of its overall CATOS software package.

Expansion of rail activities is anticipated here too, to extend tracks to cater for 750-metre long trailing loads, bringing Spain in line with northern European countries in terms of overall train length. Valencia also wants the port to become integrated into the European standard gauge rail network, requiring that two railway tracks be converted to this gauge. Currently, all rail connections to Valencia are in Spanish broad gauge, preventing Valencia from competing on a level footing for container traffic to and from France, although there is no break of gauge for trains running through to Portugal.

“During the conversion work, we aim to ensure that our existing service level for trains can be maintained throughout and this requires good planning,” says Mr Ferrer. He adds that the terminal is considering a change of TOS with substantial improvements and special support for the railway area, both on the documentation and the operational side, to realise the full potentiate of rail traffic in 2017.

However, he concedes: “The level of rail use in Spanish ports is very low, so any investment in machinery or software will have a much slower return than in other areas of the logistics chain, such as road or maritime transport.”

Complexity and predictability

CTA opted to use its separate rail yard software, rather than its existing TOS for rail optimisation. Dr Savelsberg explains that, generally, in terminals with low complexity and low unpredictability, a TOS is sufficient to support the decision-making process. However, as complexity rises, more advanced decision support is required, such as a TOS with predefined business rules. When unpredictability increases, the operational plan must continuously change to accommodate unexpected disruptions and ad-hoc changes. “It is in these environments that terminals require a TOS with add-on Agile Optimisation Modules powered by algorithms to make the best-informed decisions,” says Dr Savelsberg.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger the terminal, the more complexity it has, while even the best-planned terminals have a high degree of unpredictability as daily operations exist in the real world where all factors cannot be accounted for.

Noatum currently has four railway tracks, so operations can be reorganised if one or more is taken out of service, notes Mr Ferrer. However, if the threatened labour-related strikes take place at some ports in Spain, Valencia could theoretically end up with more vessel calls and intermodal traffic as freight gets diverted. Mr Ferrer concedes that this could lead to destabilisation across the whole ports network, but would not present too much of a rail planning challenge. “As long as the sub-systems that we have in place were able to handle more traffic – and that would be a question of capacity - operations would be planned to match the workload required.”

INFORM’s reconfiguration simulations work to counter those kinds of disruptions. At CTA, INFORM used planned construction scenarios and train schedules to prove that the expansion project could go ahead without compromising customer service standards. It also allowed potential problems to be flagged up and dealt with in simulations, rather than waiting for go-live.

“A good example of this concerned the number of chassis required in certain scenarios. The simulations showed that if they had too few, or too many chassis, they would be operating inefficiently. If there were too few chassis it would affect the unloading process, slowing it down. If there were too many chassis it would slow down the loading process,” says Dr Savelsberg.


Expanding the railway infrastructure at the ports of Bremen and Bremerhaven are the top priorities for 2017 and should be completed by the end of the year, according to Robert Howe, managing director of Port of Bremen Management Company.

The most important project, he said, is expanding the Imsumer Deich storage track complex at Bremerhaven’s Überseehafen, adding that the construction work will be finished in December 2017. The hope is that a few days before Christmas eight new parallel tracks, electrified and spanning 750 metres, will be open for traffic at the facility.

Unlike the additional tracks and technology provided for the users of the terminal railway facilities around Kaiserhafen in 2015, which are used primarily by car-carrying trains, the expanded storage track facilities at Imsumer Deich will be used primarily for the transport of containers.

Efficient rail services are a crucial factor for the attractiveness of Bremen and Bremerhaven as a port and logistics location; “track infrastructure is therefore being continuously upgraded to cope with the sustained increase in traffic forecast for the coming years,” said Mr Howe.

A spokesperson for Bremen Ports added: “This investment in railway infrastructure will strengthen the competitiveness of our international port and the rail-bound hinterland traffic as well.”

Currently, Bremen’s railway network spans 183 kilometres, and, with stations at Bremen inland port, Bremerhaven and Bremen Grolland, the port railway serves as a vital link between the hinterland and the transhipment terminals.

Around 50% of container hinterland traffic in Bremerhaven is related to railway traffic, the highest share in Hamburg-Antwerp range. The tracks also link Bremen’s freight village and Hansalinie Bremen Industrial Park with the national rail network.


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