Railway and intermodal transport may be the big winners of the pandemics

Posted by Bíró Koppány Ajtony

Foto: Tóth Gergely

According to MLSZKSZ the change in the trend can result in a significant reduction in road congestion and environmental impact

As a consequence of the world pandemics there may be a change in the transport of goods: while inland road transport – especially to foreign destinations – significantly dropped back in the first half of 2020 considering the tonnes/km of goods, railway transport grew by 7.5 % during the same period. Besides railway transport, the need for intermodal goods transport has also risen, which can cause substantial decrease in the environmental impact – one single shuttle train can substitute 35 trucks – this transport mode provides at the same time a solution for the growing problem related to the lack of drivers. The Association of Hungarian Logistics Service Centres has set up a new Working Group with the aim to support the preparation of logistic enterprises for the trend change at a European level.

Compared to the similar period of the previous year the total goods transport capacity of the Hungarian enterprises diminished by 23.8 % in the first half of 2020. However, if we examine the  figures published by the Central Statistical Office broken down according to the modes of transport, a new trend is evolving, which may even have long term effects on goods transport. The pandemics have now clearly shed light on the immense vulnerability of road transport owing to its high dependence on human resources and live workforce. Meanwhile, the need for alternative transport modes – primarily rail, water and intermodal transport – has risen both in Hungary and throughout Europe.

Road transport – in downward spiral

The  performance of the most significant of the transport modes – road transport – fell the most sharply in the first half of 2020, mainly resulting from the changing output of international traffic (the latter was at the same time the most significant factor  leading to the decline of the output of total goods transport). Regarding road transport, its performance in international tonnes/km of goods diminished by 33.3 % and its volume dropped by 28.1 % compared to the same period of the previous year. The average inland transport distance fell back to 157 km and the rate of empty rides – as a result of the bigger competition caused by excess capacity in the transport market – rose to 24 %.

As a consequence, the competitiveness of the road transport subsector has significantly deteriorated. The international – and partly the domestic – road transport is hit not only by the effects of the pandemics, but also by other factors: some foreign market players undertake transport at prices lower than the average, the changed regulatory environment of the West-European countries plus the administrative and  added cost  induced by the Mobility Package represent a great challenge.

In the road transport subsector – which is struggling with a lack of drivers anyway – the number of vehicles that can be used in international transport has been diminishing recently – there are less and less drivers who undertake international transports. Moreover, the lack of drivers will not be cured in the future either, as there are not enough young drivers – and all this results in opening the door for the alternative transport modes.

Railway transport – new types of goods on the rails

The demand for railway transport has risen substantially, old/usual traffic has become stronger and new traffic has appeared, mainly in the fields of household services, food and cereal industries. Despite the stoppages in the automotive industry there was only a 1.4 % fallback in the quantity of goods transported internationally by rail in the first six months of 2020, whereas the output of the railway in terms of international tonnes/km of goods rose by 7.5 %.

Water transport – “no way” without water

As a consequence of the unreliable water level of the Danube in the Hungarian section of the river the water transport output declined further, while – except for the Hungarian section of the river – the need for water transport on the whole length of the Danube has risen (the lower Danube section even surpassed its performance of 2019 in the same period of the year). In the first half of 2020 the output of inland water transport in terms of tonnes/km of goods decreased by 15.3 % and its volume dropped by 7.2 % compared to the same period of 2019.

Air transport – they fly only goods

Air passenger transport dropped back by 39 % of the level of the same period of the last year. It is only the cargo-transports that arrive with unchanged intensity: in the months between January-August 2020 they handled a total of 84,510 tons of air cargo, which is only 3.3 % less than in the same period of 2019.

Intermodal transport – the transport mode of the future

In the first half of 2020 the total intercontinental container traffic amounted to 156,000 TEU.

On analysing the figures, we can see the very strong proportion of imports, namely the country is in need of foreign raw materials. The finished products leave the country mainly via road transport and to a lesser proportion by rail. The main direction of the export/import container traffic to Hungary is towards the southern ports. As a result of the pandemic situation the earlier import/export proportion of 2:1 has shifted to 3:1 regarding the southbound traffic, while the northbound traffic still remains at 2:1. Striking is the number of the empty containers – cca. 80,000 TEU, the majority of which are moved to other European industrial centres, where they are loaded and get back to the seaward cycle. A smaller proportion of the containers return to the Far-East unloaded/unladen.

During the spiring months of the pandemics the need for intermodal transport has significantly risen – new types of goods appeared in this mode of transport. Owing to the stoppages in the automotive industry and in the Far-East substantial combined goods transport capacities became free, and were suddenly redirected to meet the increased household needs and the demands of the food industry: e.g. the craneable semi-trailers, the 45 foot containers, and even the non-craneable semi-trailers were put on rail. Based on the figures of the first half year of 2020 and compared to the same period of 2019 the total Hungarian intermodal traffic could even show a slight rise – +2 % – during the pandemic months!

An immense advantage of the intermodal transport mode is proven by the fact that one single engine is able to carry as many as 35 craneable/non-craneable semi-trailers or 45 foot containers, and in this way it can redeem a road capacity of 35 trucks, which results in less congestion on the roads and less environmental impact. The goods carried by intermodal transport can cover even 1,200 km within 24 hours by rail (by water this time is a bit longer), the transport can be easily organised and the railway transport costs are competitive. Less trailers and drivers are necessary, amortisation costs diminish as well (tread wear, repair, less maintenance, the trailers can be exchanged later).

According to the figures of MLSZKSZ the combi terminals belonging to the central Hungarian logistic service centres are responsible for the major part of Hungarian intermodal traffic – the international shuttle trains arrive here and leave from here. 93 % of the total internal intermodal traffic arrived in the country through three central Hungarian combi terminals (BILK Kombiterminál, Mahart Container Center, METRANS) in 2019.


Hungarian intermodal traffic in TEU (Resource: MLSZKSZ)

MLSZKSZ envisages that the proportion of intermodal traffic will grow within the total transport; moreover, this process has already begun. One of the reasons is that e.g. in the case of automotive factories when calculating the amount of CO2 emission the CO2 values of the logistic chain have to be involved as well, therefore the producers make an effort to move as much raw material and as many end products by rail as possible. Among others, Mercedes and Audi strive for increasing the proportion of rail transport, whereas BWM is planning its factory in Debrecen in a way where railway transport will play an important role both in the incoming delivery of raw materials and the outgoing transport of finished products.  Similarly, the measures of the Mobility Package have a negative impact on road transport and favour rail, water and intermodal transport modes, as they raise the road transport costs and also involve more organisational tasks.

In answer to the processes discussed above, MLSZKSZ has set up a Working Group for Combi Terminals and Intermodal Transport with the aim to support the preparation of logistic enterprises for the trend change on a European level, and at the same time to improve their competitiveness by exploiting the new opportunities.


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