Can rail handle the cargo volumes heading for Rotterdam?
Since the mega ship Ever Given was freed from the Suez Canal, the port of Rotterdam has been preparing for a wave of cargo coming its way. Most of this cargo is destined to be transhiped to trucks or barge, the role of rail is limited. Yet, the port needs all hands on deck in order to surpass the logistics crisis. Which role is rail to play?
Extra orders have not yet been made, it is business as usual, is the narrative of any operator or railway company asked how they are preparing for the influx of cargo currently still on sea. Infrastructure manager ProRail expects a few additional trains per day for a few weeks, but nothing has been requested so far, it pointed out.
A few extra trains
It is in no way clear how much cargo will actually enter the hinterland via the Dutch port in the coming weeks. The port itself speaks of an expected ten per cent increase of ships arriving, but these may not all unload all cargo in Rotterdam, spokesperson Leon Winters explains. Despite these uncertainties, ProRail says it is ready to play its role.
“A few additional trains per day we can manage”, says Joep de Hart, programme manager Capacity Allocation in the blog that ProRail published on Tuesday 6 April. “We have a good overview of which train paths are still available for freight trains. We know how much capacity the various sidings have and which routes we can use.”
As most operators and railway undertakings agree, they will do their usual job in transporting cargo to the hinterland. However, if extra capacity is required, things may get more complicated. “There are always possibilities to free up additional capacity on the network, but we do need to be aware of some limitations”, says Jelle Rebbers from DB Cargo the Netherlands. “For example, the Betuwe Route to Germany is currently unavailable, as work is ongoing on the section between Oberhausen and Emmerich.”
ProRail shares this opinion. Although de Hart works for the One Stop Shop where ad hoc capacity can be requested, he acknowledges that “ultimately, we have to work with the capacity we have. Unlike on the road, for example, you cannot simply increase capacity on the tracks. It is up to us to make the best possible use of the available space.”
Rail efficient enough?
Apart from the capacity question, there are concerns about the efficiency of the rail freight industry. Unfortunately, it is not known for its efficiency when compared to other transport modalities, which is maybe why most shippers are likely to choose barge or truck in a crisis situation like this, industry experts argued.
However, if the industry works together, it can play a crucial role, says Hans Willem Vroon from interest group RailGood. “It is important that the rail terminals of the deep sea terminals are well staffed to load and unload the freight trains and inland vessels, that terminal slots are used efficiently, that chain parties are informed well in time about the loading/unloading lists and ETA/ETD of the trains and that the integral plan 72 to 24 hours before implementation (terminal slots, yard slots and train paths (incl. border times) is correct”, he summarises.
If all parties involved are on the highest level of alertness and communicate with each other well enough, it can pull this off, Vroon comments. According to Rebbers, this is exactly the state of preparedness it is currently in. “We are communicating very carefully with the parties involved, and we are very much aware of the situation.”
According to Frank van der Snoek, department manager of Capacity Allocation at ProRail the communication with railway undertakings is already there. “We ask them: what do you think is coming and when? For the time being, the impression is that a number of extra trains per day will be required, just as during Brexit and at the start of the corona crisis. In addition, the occupancy rate of the trains will be higher”, he says in the same ProRail blog.
ProRail is also part of the Logistics Alliance, where many logistics parties came together as soon as the news about the Suez blockade had come in. The port of Rotterdam is also communicating to all parties of the logistics sector, it says. “We really need every bit of help to handle the large amount of cargo that is expected to arrive. We also need rail freight”, said Winters.