Intermodal logistics: the rise of rail

31st March 2020

With the challenges faced by intermodal solutions, rail is proving a real growth area for logistics companies. Advances in rail’s ability to maintain precise temperature conditions is driving this change – and leading to significant performance and sustainability benefits.

Let’s start with a number: 653,537. That’s the total miles of railway track estimated to exist across the planet.  Compare that to an estimated 21 million kilometers of roads, or the world’s sea-lanes and airspace.

However way you look at it, intermodal supply chains have a lot to work with.

Intermodality has seen shipping and road lead the way. But recently there’s been a steady growth in rail’s popularity. Certainly in the realm of refrigerated transport, driven by the following key factors:

  • More and more products now require temperature-controlled transportation, from high-tech printers to simple paracetamol tablets
  • Regulations are in part driving this increase, as well as initiatives such as GDP
  • Long-term goals aimed at reducing food wastage (estimated at 1.3 billion tons each year) while meeting the nutritional demands of a growing population

Intermodal challenges

Underneath these high level factors exist a number of more operational concerns. Day-to-day challenges that continue to influence the future direction of intermodal logistics.

These include:

The continuing shortage of trained drivers

Which in turn is creating the ‘eastern shift’ of talent as drivers from in and around Poland head west to fill the gaps. This move in turn creates a domestic shortage in Poland, which is filled by drivers from places like the Ukraine.

The value of rail here is obvious: one train can pull 80 containers or trailers, and only require short road trips after unloading to deliver loads to their final destination. A benefit that also offers immediate emissions and fuel consumption benefits as well.

Increased road congestion

Moscow still sits at the top of the table when it comes to road traffic jams, with London second and Paris third. In the French capital alone, it’s estimated that motorists spend an average 65 hours a year stuck in traffic.

As with driver issues, the ability of rail to move multiple shipments in one go is an obvious benefit. Take for example the port city of Antwerp, and its ring road described as the “center of a spider web of highway that’s impossible to evade”. With a series of road works causing further problems, leading officials have recently urged businesses to embrace rail!

A lack of confidence

This is an issue that shows up particularly in pharmaceuticals. The majority of these products are moved via road and air because suppliers are fixated on maintaining exact temperature ranges. Such an approach can be costly however, and also detrimental to the environment.

For rail, the challenge is to demonstrate that it too can maintain load temperatures – with an accuracy of plus or minus 2 degrees. As the technology arrives to make this happen a growing number of companies are turning to rail, with more in testing mode.

Political influences

These can range from import and export bans (for example between the EU and Russia) to the on-going Belt & Road Initiative being subsidized by the Chinese government.

For rail, any ban introduces restrictions and complexity – and therefore hampers growth. For the Belt & Road Initiative, a key consideration is that the existing subsidies will end at some point. The challenge is therefore to find business models that still deliver a profit without them.

Putting innovation front and center

Talking of solutions, there are also a number of technology developments worth mentioning. These include:

  • Greater use of 45ft containers – to better accommodate road trailer loads (40ft trailers are typically 3 pallets short)
  • Improvements in the insulation of trailers and cooling engines – able to cope with extreme ambient temperatures (both low and high)
  • Connected telematics – allowing customers to track loads across the globe, monitor conditions, and change settings when necessary
  • More robust technology – with the strength to handle being shunted, lifted, and dragged on and off trains
  • New rail depots – that allow standard trailers to be driven onto a train without the need for any adjustments or manual intervention

Looking to the future

Recent developments in rail have been aimed at making it a cheaper, more convenient, and more reliable option in the world of intermodal. They’re aimed at giving logistics companies confidence that while a driver is not at hand to closely manage conditions inside individual trailers, loads are still being maintained in ideal conditions.

Other new technologies are emerging, including blockchain, which is being used by busy harbors such as Rotterdam and Hamburg.

However, we should allow smaller logistics firms time to ‘catch up’. As a result our expectation is that existing technology will still receive the majority of investment over the next few years. It will be a question of evolution rather than revolution.

The support that matters

A final point to make is the role Thermo King is playing in intermodal logistics. Our first and overriding requirement is simply to build the best performing, rugged, and intelligent units possible. This we continue to do, with advances in gensets, controls, and optional extras.

These are the basic tools. But what we believe really stands us out is the support made available to customers. Hence the ongoing investment we’re making into our international dealer network. As a result we offer a network of expertise that spans the globe, with support available where and when you need it most.

To the dealer network, we can also add our Connected Solutions: telematics that further our global coverage, and provide a real-time view of the conditions of both cargo and refrigeration equipment to support smarter operations.

Find your route to success

From road to rail, Thermo King offers the products and support needed to protect any load under any condition.

For more information, visit our intermodal solutions homepage.

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