THE Co-op group is one of Switzerland's largest supermarket chains, and its lorries operate over hundreds of kilometres of the country's busiest roads each day delivering goods to its stores. Now it is investing in its biggest project ever, for baked goods, which will increase volumes even more. But rather than simply inflicting more trucks on Swiss roads, the Co-op decided to transfer more freight to rail.

This is being done step by step, and 11 routes had been chosen up to August. For example, Co-op supplies are being trucked from its distribution centre at Wangen to a RailCare hub at Härkingen taken by rail to another RailCare hub at Daillens, and then trucked out to stores from Daillens. On the return trip, pasta from Pasta Gala is taken by road from Morges to Daillens, railed to Härkingen and then trucked to Wangen.

RailCare was set up in 2009 to provide fast intermodal links on local railways all over the country. Although RailCare was taken over by Co-op in 2010, it does not work exclusively for Co-op but has other customers too. It has nine hubs and runs several trains a day covering about 200,000km a year, and completing a round trip within 24 hours.

The philosophy is to keep the collection and delivery by road at either end of the rail trunk haul as short as possible. Trains run to fixed schedules at up to 120km/h, carrying up to 26 containers each. "This is not a lot, but we want to have shorter trains for the sake of speed," Mr Philipp Wegmüller, CEO of RailCare explains.

Huge changes are in the pipeline, he says, with both new hubs and new services: "Our objective is only to have horizontal handling, including 40ft containers, and to automate all stages of handling as far as possible." The latest innovation, introduced this year, was to equip the first of 60 refrigerated swap-bodies with a GPS telematics system.

containerrmoverOne of RailCare's clients is Heineken. The Heineken train, which travels the length of the country between Domat and Daillens, uses an innovative new horizontal loading technique dubbed ContainerMover 3000 (pictured), designed by Innovatrain. "We wanted to develop a system that would cope with a standard 20ft container as well as swap-bodies without any adaptation," says Mr Pieter van den Bold, managing director of Innovatrain. The system comprises a "wagon adaptor" mounted on the lorry; it is hydraulically operated with electronic controls, and can transfer a unit weighing up to 22 tonnes between lorry and wagon within 3 minutes, even in extreme winter conditions. All it requires is a 3m wide stretch of asphalt beside the railway.

"We built the prototype in May 2011, and delivered the first 10 units to RailCare in November," reports van den Bold. The system is attracting attention elsewhere too. "DB Schenker selected two horizontal handling methods, including ours, and we demonstrated it to Volkswagen who were very impressed," he says.

"It's very new; we've only had it on the market since the beginning of this year, and it's important to prove it works well. But the first 10 units have already done eight months' hard work for RailCare, so we're making progress."

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) set up its own subsidiary company called Cargo Domizil in 1981 specialising in intermodal overnight inland freight. It was taken over in 1996 by a consortium of three haulage companies - Planzer, Camion and Galliker - and, following restructuring and a new location concept, broke even for the first time two years later. Now it carries 10,000 consignments a night between 10 locations in Switzerland, with 60% by rail and 40% by road.

Using Planzer's logistics expertise, freight flows can be combined, transit times reduced, reliability improved, emissions cut, and full advantage taken of the Swiss ban on trucks driving at night. "Nobody at SBB Cargo has any logistics know-how," explains Mr Fridolin Landolt, a Planzer board member. "But there is still room for improvement in the availability of rail infrastructure and locations for hubs, which have to be in the right place."

From this year, Planzer is also masterminding the supply of goods to Zermatt, where road access is restricted. The Matterhorn-Gotthard Railway (MGB) was managing this operation itself, but realised it was more efficient to concentrate on running a railway and to commission an expert partner to look after the logistics side. Planzer formed a new company, Alpin Cargo, to deal with everything except carriage by rail under an initial five-year contract. "We have two terminals, one in Visp and one in Zermatt, and run 38 freight trains a week," says Mr Jean-Pierre Wettstein, another Planzer board member. "From Zermatt there's another rail link to Gornergrat. We carry about 85,000 tonnes of goods a year to Zermatt, and about a quarter is mineral oil. It's proving to be a very successful concept."

At the eastern end of the country in Graubunden, the narrow-gauge Rhaetian Railway (RhB) is in a unique position. The whole of this canton is mountainous, and sometimes in winter the only access is by rail. RhB's freight arm carries 750,000 tonnes per year using 460 wagons and serving 37 freight yards. "One of our special features is that we operate mixed trains - a Co-op wagon coupled to a passenger train, for example," says Mr Mattias Tscharner, head of freight at RhB.

"Also we have a higher proportion of intermodal traffic than most. One of our customers, Aldi, always used road transport, but when they saw the mountains, they realised intermodal was the only way." In this terrain, intermodal transport is economical over surprisingly short distances; the longest route, from Landquart to Samedan, is 96km and the shortest, from Arosa to Chur, a mere 26km. "This route is also the best earner," smiles Tscharner.

RhB's intermodal success story started in 1992 with a working group studying the possibility of transporting foodstuffs in swap-bodies, and was quickly followed by trial runs. A big leap forward was achieved in 1999 with the opening of a new handling centre in Landquart and the Vereina tunnel, leading to new services for both the Co-op and the Post Office. In 2000, RhB opened Europe's highest intermodal terminal in Samedan at 1700m.

On the import/export front, SBB Cargo is planning two major projects which together will form the gateway to Switzerland for long-haul intermodal traffic from all over Europe. Planning permission for Gateway Limmattal, near Zurich, is being submitted this autumn. It will be built on the edge of an existing marshalling yard and will serve as the country's main distribution centre from 2017. As Mr Daniel Bürgy, project leader for intermodal traffic at SBB Cargo, points out "2000 containers a day arrive in Switzerland from northern European ports, and this is expected to triple by 2030."

In parallel is the development of Basle Nord tri-modal terminal at Switzerland's only port, which will also be the gateway for northwest Switzerland. The work will be carried out in two stages, with road/rail facilities complete by 2015 and the tri-modal installations, including a new basin for barge traffic, opening three years later.

There are still problems, however. One question raised time and again is the absolute priority given to passenger trains on Switzerland's densely-used network. As Wettstein points out with regard to Alpin Cargo: "About 80% of Zermatt's revenue comes from tourists, so priority for passenger trains is important. But we need another approach." This view is expressed by many involved in the railfreight sector who resent having to delay a long-haul freight train for a frequent urban service. Another question is whether it makes sense to integrate domestic intermodal traffic with wagonload freight, as several experts have suggested. Only time will tell whether such views are realistic and translate into action in favour of railfreight.