CONTAINERS are the defining success story of freight transport over the last six decades. They can be stacked, carried anywhere by any mode of transport, refrigerated and even used for housing. Yet intermodal providers, especially in Europe, are facing a new challenge because of the increasing number of lorry semitrailers.

About 95% of semitrailers cannot be lifted on to a railway wagon which means they have to be either adapted, adding to the weight and cost, or loaded horizontally, which requires specialist equipment, again adding to costs.

Nikrasa 1If more freight is going to be shifted by rail, change is necessary. This issue was explored at the Logistik Kompetenz Zentrum (LKZ) at Prien am Chiemsee, Germany, during a symposium attended by representatives from various transport sectors, including: rail operators, terminal operators, freight forwarders, the road haulage sector and wagon manufacturers. During the conference the director of LKZ, Mr Karl Fischer, outlined his vision for intermodal transport, which he believes is the future of freight, but argued the only way to succeed is to work together more closely.

Fishcher says for example, it will be essential to agree common standards for semitrailers so they can be handled by the existing, well-established intermodal system. LKZ is currently developing the “future trailer” which is a standard size with no projections. At the moment, longer or higher units with different axle configurations are constantly being introduced, but if the standard stipulated by EU 96/53 had been consistently applied, these difficulties would not arise.

To handle semitrailers, LKZ has developed a system dubbed Nikrasa, which is designed to be as practical as possible because most road haulers are reluctant to modify their lorries or semitrailers. The system consists of a grid on low ramps where the semitrailer is driven on to the grid until the wheels rest in the slots provided, and the grid can then be lifted with the semitrailer by crane. It is compatible with all existing terminal handling procedures and is not expensive.

The system is still being perfected but should be ready next year while a technique for loading a whole train with this system is still under development. It will be interesting to see how popular it proves to be in comparison with the more sophisticated Lohr system, which as Mr Hervé Morel, commercial director of Lohr industries, pointed out, can handle any type of semitrailer unit while Nikrasa is only suitable for standard units.

As for the railway side, there is a great deal of room for improvement. True, the entire process of shifting a unit from A to B by intermodal transport is more complicated than by road, but it could be more efficient. The EU has been backing a shift from road to rail for some time, but according to a recent report from the European Court of Auditors, rail’s market share in the EU has declined since 2011 in part because it is failing to respond adequately to the competition.

“The only EU directive on intermodal transport dates from 1992, so it is high time it was revised to meet modern requirements,” says Mr Ralf-Charley Schultze, director general of the International Union of Combined Road-Rail Transport Companies (UIRR).

Recently the European Commission published a report on its regulatory fitness and performance programme (Refit) admitting there are considerable shortcomings in the effectiveness of the combined transport directive, and Schultze hopes to have details of a proposal confirmed by experts next year.

One problem is that there are not nearly enough wagons to meet demand for the transport of semitrailers by rail. Currently there are only enough wagons to accommodate about 14,000 units, which is a tiny proportion of the total fleet of 2.2 million, and further growth is expected.

In addition, there should also be investment in digital processes to speed up handling as well as tracking and tracing. Fischer said he cannot see why the road haulage logistics sector already has a digital interface in place while the rail sector often still communicates by personal contact or fax.

Progress is being made, as was shown by the number of delegates from different branches of the industry at the symposium. However, while there may still be too many inveterate lorry drivers on the market, it is encouraging to see major German logistics companies like Bernhard Krone and Ansorge collaborating with the rail sector to find ways of developing efficient intermodal transport solutions for semitrailers.