Combined transport: a system with a future
Combined road/rail transport was introduced in Europe 50 years ago and is now an important alternative for freight transport. The system integrates different transport carriers into a single transport chain, thus combining the advantages of each. Around 140 suppliers operate in this sector. As a pioneer of combined transport and the market leader in Alpine transit, Hupac regards the continuous expansion of the system as an obligation.
The transport technique
In unaccompanied combined transport (UCT), the loading units are carried by road or by vessel to the transhipment terminals. There they are loaded onto trains to continue the journey by rail. Only the loading units – containers, semi-trailers or swap bodies – are carried, while the drivers remain at the terminals. At the destination terminal the consignments are picked up by truck and transported to their final destination.
The European combined transport system is the result of a standardisation process lasting several decades. Different elements are continuously developed and coordinated:
- 100,000 standardised load units
- 20 million containers worldwide
- 60,000 flat wagons and pocket wagons in various technical versions
- 400 transhipment terminals
- 2,000 cargo locomotives
- Europe-wide rail infrastructure that accommodates the requirements of combined transport.
Combined transport is a growth market with a Europe-wide traffic volume of 192 million tonnes of freight and an average annual growth rate of 7.7%. Compared to the road, it is competitive over long distances from 500 km, or even 300 km in Alpine transit. The existing shortages in road haulage, favourable transport policy conditions and the positive environmental balance are the key market drivers.
Carriers that use unaccompanied combined transport make a long-term system decision and substantial investments. These include specific load units suitable for rail loading with grappler pockets for lifting and a reinforced chassis. Other factors to consider include organisational and structural adjustments such as dedicated scheduling, information technology, branches or partners to handle the initial and final road leg of the transport, short-haul tractors and drivers. The development capacity of the combined transport system and the reliability of the transport policy conditions are key criteria for investment decisions.
Combined transport competes with pure road transport and is exposed to heavy price pressure. High volumes, high productivity and optimal use of scarce rail capacity are key success factors for the marketability of the system. The quality and reliability of the transport service are also of great importance. They are crucial for customer satisfaction but also for production efficiency, because delayed trains cause high subsequent costs. This could be solved by an overhaul of the current priority regulation, which favours passenger trains over freight trains as a matter of principle. The provision of rail infrastructure suitable for freight transport also plays an important part: if long, heavy trains with a high profile can run directly into centrally located terminals on routes with low gradients and no border stops, this will create the best conditions for the success of combined transport.
Advantages for all
In 2011, the sector generated an annual turnover of EUR 3.3 billion and provided 39,000 jobs with operators, terminals and railways. The CO2 savings compared to pure road transport amounted to 6.7 million tonnes. The reduction in external costs brought by the shift of volumes from the road to the railways can be estimated at EUR 2.2 billion. Combined transport thus makes an important contribution to society and the environment.