Cargo trains: Intermodality and its role in logistics

In the ultra-competitive sector logistics is today, intermodality allows companies to better exploit the most effective modes of transportation such as trucking, shipping, and rail. 

Apart from trucking, the other two transport solutions require major infrastructural investment but better suit long distances. Moreover, in the hyper-globalized world we live in, logistic companies are always trying to make the most out of long-range travels in terms of both time and money. This is where intermodality plays a key role, providing a green and cost-saving solution. For instance, just looking at one of the most ambitious infrastructural projects, the Chinese Silk Road, it can be easily observed how railways and maritime routes are two sides of the same coin.

Transloading, which means moving containers from a train to an ocean liner (and the other way around) is the key passage of intermodality. Though intermodal terminals represent a major setback to intermodality being adopted worldwide, as they are specific infrastructural projects thus requiring substantial investment. As a matter of fact, all around the world, leader port authorities are adapting their facilities to ensure they can provide their customers with a precious rail connection. 

The importance of rail cargo 

Today, rail cargo is gaining more and more popularity as it is an efficient, green and pretty fast way to transport goods in both the medium and long-range. Many supranational institutions, such as the European Union, believe that rail cargo is a viable solution to link inner regions, such as landlocked ones and those not included in traditional maritime routes. Thus, this expansion of railroads must foster integration with other transport modes in order to accommodate the rising trend of trade among countries. In order to better understand how well intermodality integrates with logistic networks all around the world, let’s take a look at three very different cases: Trieste, the Silk Road, and Switzerland. 

Trieste: Italy’s biggest rail port

With over 62 million tons moved in 2019, the port of Trieste ranked first in Italy for cargo handling despite the geographical location that makes it uncompetitive nationwide. According to many, its strategic asset is indeed intermodality, which allows to provide logistic services to numerous Central Europe’s regions such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Southern Germany and many others. It is estimated that, in 2019, around 56% of the cargo unloaded in the Trieste Port was loaded onto trains; this is a remarkably high percentage, well above the European 2050 target value of 50%. As a matter of fact, the Trieste Port Authority puts a great effort in developing and modernizing its internal rail network, as shown by its recent investment plan to modernize more than the 70 km of rails strategically located inside the port. The importance of a rail connection is also supported by the European institutions, as proved, for instance, by the €45.5 million investment granted to Trieste Port Authority by EU Commission as part of the project “Connecting Europe Facility”. 

China: not only intermodality

As we previously mentioned, the Silk Road initiative heavily relies on the support that railways can give to several congested ports in the China-Europe route. Because many of the major ports are operating well beyond their transhipment capacity, cargo trains represent a very effective alternative transport mode able to help those busy ports managing such high volumes of trade. In this case, intermodality isn’t the key point of contact between railroads and shipping: they are part of the same logistic network that connects China to Europe. Indeed, as you can see in the image above only a few intermodal terminals are found, such as in Shenzen, Athens and Trieste. In order for cargo trains to be able to reduce the volumes managed by ports, railroads cover those routes that cannot be served by shipping (i.e. the ones linking Inner Asia to many landlocked Central European countries). 

Switzerland: one of the world’s most dense railway networks

Switzerland is among the leading countries in terms of rail cargo despite the complete lack of direct access to the sea, as proven by the 5,300 km of internal railway lines. 

Indeed, with a very high ratio of goods transported on rails to the total volume, it teaches a very valuable lesson to countries and logistic networks worldwide. Even though substantial investments are required regularly in order for trains to travel as smooth as possible, there are many strong points arising from an effective exploitation of the rail network. 

In conclusion, the development of rail cargo and the adoption of intermodality can only increase in the future, as traded volumes are expected to grow at a fast pace. Moreover, we are going in the right direction as proven by the numerous projects currently under construction worldwide. Without a doubt, the benefits coming from an integrated logistic network outweigh the costs which are still very relevant and should always be taken into account. 

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