Why rail could do more at North Sea Port

Ever since MSC announced to open a depot at North Sea Port, the phone has been ringing non-stop at Vlaeynatie, the company that is to facilitate the depot at Terneuzen. “Other shipping companies are now asking us if we are ready to come up with similar arrangements for them”, said Paul van den Broeck, CEO of Vlaeynatie.

Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is one of the world’s largest ocean carriers of containers. In addition, it has a range of land-based logistics services, inlcuding container depots. Within North Sea Port, MSC already runs depots at Stukwerkers in Ghent and Kloosterboer and Verbrugge in Flushing. It will now add another support point at Vlaeynatie in the Autrichehaven in Terneuzen.

The depot is provided by Vlaeynatie, which operates the 30,000m² container terminal 3MCT in Terneuzen. At 3MCT, every day barges load and unload containers from or to all major container terminals in Antwerp and Rotterdam. Trains connect the terminal with Antwerp as the central hub in MSC’s European network, and Zeebrugge. RailFreight Live went there to see where all this interest was coming from.

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More services

“For our containers, we now have two regular trains departing to Antwerp Deepsea Terminal, and we have a direct link with MSC home terminals in Antwerp. We bring import containers and empty containers from this home terminal to Westdorpe”, said van den Broeck, when we visited him at his terminal.

“Starting from August, we will have three train connections between these points, and we want to further increase this frequency, as we have further possibilities, not limited to this deepsea terminal. Since the news that we are to facilitate MSC with a depot, we have had other shipping companies on the line, asking us if we are ready to come up with similar arrangements with them. We are waiting, and have the means to make rail more favourable.”

Lower prices

If you ask the CEO, more trains means more efficiency and perhaps lower prices. The company has always been an advocate of rail, and it would like to see the volumes grow, he explains. But what could help is establishing the missing link: the railway connection between the Axelse Vlakte in the Netherlands and the Belgian town Zelzate on the east bank of the Ghent-Terneuzen canal.

Currently, rail traffic runs via the west bank. If it wants to move in the other direction, it needs to make a complete loop. What is more, trains need to cross the Sluiskil bridge, which is open to allow for the passage of ships several times of the day. This forms a major bottleneck.

“Establishing this railway connection would make the railway connection much simpler”, said van den Broeck. “For us in concrete terms, this would mean that we can promote rail freight among our customers towards a better service, facilitate higher volumes, and that the price becomes more competitive with barge and other transport modes.”

Still waiting approval

End of February, Belgium, Flanders, and the Netherlands signed a letter of intent to improve the railway connection Ghent-Terneuzen. Earlier, in June 2020, the Belgian federal parliament approved this plan. The missing link is one of the possible projects. However, despite all political will its realisation is far from secure, and far from happening tomorrow.

“Three projects have been proposed in order to improve the railway connection Ghent-Terneuzen”, explained Hans de Meij, project leader at the port. “Apart from the missing link, the plan includes a new south-east curve in the track east of the Sluiskil bridge, and an extension and opening up to the north of the rail bundle at the Kluizendok ( ‘Zandeken’). We could realise all of these projects, or only one. This is something that is still unknown.”

The parties involved are currently investigating all of the possible options. “We are taking our time, it could take 4 to 5 years before we decide which element we want to build. Then, we will start the works. It is also at that point that we will apply for European funding for this project.”

Finally get a green light

In an interview with Spoorpro TV last year (in Dutch), director of the North Sea Port Jan Lagasse pointed out that the plans for a better rail connection between Ghent and Terneuzen have been on the shelves for years, but never materialised. The first plans for the rail project date back to 1968, but after that it remained silent for decades. When the director started at Sealand Seaports in 2014, he managed to get the rail project on the agenda again. “This rail project is actually a kind of Loch Ness monster that reappears every so many years”, he jokingly said.

Belgium/Flanders and the Netherlands have now committed to invest two million each to develop the Ghent-Terneuzen canal zone. They hope that EU support will not be missing from their endeavour. “We have expressed our wish for the construction of the missing link, and I think this has also been declared to the European Commission, said van den Broeck. “I hope we will finally get a green light.”

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is the editor-in-chief of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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