Photo: DB Cargo

Sea-air can offer rail freight operators a model for increasing volumes, but only if they take advantage of the current sustainability-driven interest in the mode.

Despite calls to decarbonise freight, road haulage remains the dominant land mode in Europe, accounting for 77% of all volumes in the EU and 81% in the UK. But with the recent instability of ocean services and the ever-present high cost of airfreight, international rail has seen renewed interest.

Speaking to The Loadstar during the Multimodal event in Birmingham this week, forwarders said they had increased their rail activities.

However, one noted, this was likely to be a blip, describing rail as a “contingency, or mode for congestion-busting”, and added a belief that the “fad for rail and sea-air would drop right off once sea flows stabilise and air prices drop”.

Even so, there was a sense that with rail operators keen to increase their freight activities, one way to do so would be to remodel operations on a combi offering, similar to sea-air.

Justin Atkin, Port of Antwerp-Bruges representative for the UK & Ireland, told The Loadstar that with its extensive rail infrastructure, the Belgian port was looking to work more collaboratively with rail operators

And, like the forwarders The Loadstar had spoken to, he suggested there was a way to marry the use of haulage and rail for more sustainable freight offerings.

“We are looking to develop our business with Poland, attempting to attract volumes from the country, similarly with Hungary and Turkey, and we believe a trailer-train model could work well on this front,” said Mr Atkin.

“Essentially this would see trailers brought by road to a depot and sent on by rail.”

One thing everyone agreed on was that there was certainly an opportunity for rail operators, with particular demand emerging out of the ever-increasing parcel market, but alongside improved offerings there also needed to be something of a mindset switch.

Maggie Simpson, director general of the UK Rail Freight Group, suggested there was some stubbornness in the supply chain.

“You have those using road freight that want rail to come to them, but then you also have rail operators that simply want customers to come to them. All sides need to shift a bit to make a move to rail work,” she told The Loadstar.

“There’s certainly the potential, though, in the UK we are running trains out of all the major ports.”

And, in the UK, another hurdle is the misconception that rail freight capacity is always full, which has developed as a consequence of the major container lines and forwarders block-booking space from the likes of Freightliner and GB Railfreight.

However, Steve Freeman, chair of rail freight online booking platform RailX, told The Loadstar: “Big rail operators like Freightliner and GB Railfreight tend to see their capacity booked up front, but often they will end up running their services half-empty, because the volumes and the destinations don’t marry up.

“It’s all well and good saying ‘we run six services a day’, but if they are running half-full, you’re actually providing capacity of just three services a day.”

Mr Freeman explained that part of the problem was that space was booked so far in advance, which “disincentivises freight lines to resell the space because it has already been sold”. But he said this was precisely what should be done.

“And this is what RailX does, it’s a means to resell space, leading to multiple net benefits, not the least of which is increased rail utilisation and reduced carbon footprints,” he added.

With a background as a consultant to rail firms across Europe, Mr Freeman said there were similar issues of underutilisation there, also driven by larger carriers and forwarders block-booking capacity they would not use.

He added: “Rail is limited by the infrastructural requirements, but our intention is to show forwarders they need not think ‘road first’; we want them thinking ‘rail first’.”

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