Freight operators seek alternative modes and routes for Rotterdam-Italy containers

9/2/2017

Container storage capacity at the Port of Rotterdam’s Rail Distribution Centre, which is majority-owned by DB Cargo, is being stretched to the limit as freight operators seek alternative transport modes and routes for containers that would normally use the closed section of the Rhine Valley rail corridor, Lloyd’s Loading List understands.

Because of a backlog, the centre has taken the rare step of issuing a stop on containers bound for Busto Arsizio and Novara in northern Italy, which serve as hubs for Milan.

However a spokesman for KNV, an association of Netherlands-based rail freight companies, played down the scale of the disruption and its impact.

“No containers are blocked as such in Rotterdam as there are alternatives via road, train, and inland waterways through Germany and France. Of course this is more complex, time-consuming and more expensive. But in the end, all containers are being transported. There are ups and downs, but let’s not make it too dramatic,” he commented.

“There are delays, that’s for sure, varing from one day to one week. But we don’t have a total overview of the situation, so it’s difficult to put a precise figure on the number of containers affected,” he added.

As reported last week in Lloyd’s Loading List, the closure of a key section of the Rhine-Alpine rail freight corridor is set to disrupt shipments between northern and southern Europe for several more weeks. Delays to services started on 12 August when tunnel construction in the town of Rastatt resulted in unexpected damage to the double-track Rhine Valley mainline. A tunnel-boring machine that was crossing a few metres below the railway line caused a serious deformation of the tracks, making them unpassable for the 170-200 freight trains which typically transit Rastatt daily.

Having initially indicated that the closed 150-metre long section could be re-opened in around two weeks, German state railway group Deutsche Bahn (DB) has since stated that “extensive repair work” will last until 7 October. It said “various relief measures for freight transport” had been introduced, including an alternative route for freight trains, although the replacement measures only replace a proportion of the lost capacity.

Meanwhile, intermodal operator Contargo said it was chartering additional barges to transport containers between Rotterdam and Basel. However, the Rhenus Logistics-owned company warned that water levels on the Rhine had dropped more than 40 centimetres over the past week and could not rule out having to levy a supplementary charge by the end of this week to take this factor into account. Low water would also have consequences for the loading capacity of the vessels.

Contingency plans also include Contargo putting on more trains for its Basel Multimodal Express  (BME) service via France. The import leg is fully booked this week, but it is planning to offer two weekly frequencies from next week.

Contargo underlined that re-routing through France on special itineraries increased the cost of its rail offering, making it necessary to introduce a supplementary charge of €125 per TEU.

However, problems with barge congestion experienced at European container ports Rotterdam and Antwerp in recent months have eased, according to industry sources, although some operators are continuing to add congestion surcharges due to continuing instability and waiting times of up to 72 hours.

France’s state-owned rail freight operator Fret SNCF is not directly impacted by the Rhine Valley rail closure and, along with fellow members of the Sibelit Belgium-Lorraine-Luxembourg-Italy rail freight corridor alliance − B-Cargo (Belgium), CFF Cargo (Switzerland)  and CFL (Luxembourg) − had been solicited by German and Swiss rail companies to organise alternative itineraries via France for freight shipments, a spokesman revealed.

Swiss intermodal operator Hupac last week said that chaos on the rail freight corridor, which stretches from Rotterdam to Genoa, was “severely affecting goods exchange between Northern Europe and Italy/Switzerland”. It said the line closure was having a direct impact on the Hupac network, which comprises 155 train pairs per week on Benelux-Italy, Germany-Italy, Scandinavia-Italy, and import/export Switzerland routes.

The operator said it had drawn up solutions for 50% of the affected trains this week – enough capacity to cover the most urgent needs during the current low-demand summer period. However, it called for “the immediate development of diversions and alternatives in close cooperation with railway and terminal partners, in order to be able to offer appropriate solutions with the increase of transport demand”.