Harnessing Europe’s rail and barge networks to drive sustainable growth

Harnessing Europe’s rail and barge networks to drive sustainable growth

Date: 05/01/2023

Today’s consumers expect their purchases to arrive faster than ever, as seen in the rapid growth of the express delivery industry.

At the same time, they’re also becoming more concerned about the carbon footprint of the goods they buy. Satisfying both of these demands requires innovative thinking about the way products are transported.

We believe a multimodal approach is the best way to ensure timely delivery of products around the world, while also limiting greenhouse gas emissions. 

A multimodal approach

Integrating inland transport options into our ocean terminals helps ease port congestion and makes supply chains more resilient. When these options include access to train and barge networks, we help reduce road traffic and mitigate the impact of transporting freight on the environment.

For this reason, we are prioritising investment in our large and growing rail and barge network in Europe to speed the movement of freight from ports to destinations across the continent. We operate 20 freight terminals in 12 countries across Europe, with rail or barge services available at about 95% of them. 

We have 12 inland terminals: three in Germany, four in Switzerland, two in Belgium and three in the Alsace region of France, and they all offer road, rail, and waterway solutions to complement our ports.

This investment reflects how trains and barges are taking an increasingly prominent role in global trade. The global rail freight market is expected to reach nearly $279 billion in 2026, up by more than 12% from 2020 levels, Statista data shows.  The global barge transportation market reached $122 billion last year, and will grow to nearly $150 billion by 2027, according to a recent report from IMARC Group. 

Investing in the future

The green credentials of trains and barges are well established. A report commissioned in the US by the National Waterways Foundation shows that barges and trains far exceed road transport when it comes to fuel efficiency. Barges can move cargo more than four times as far as lorries on the same amount of fuel, the study shows. 

It also states that barges and trains produce much lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than over-the-road transport.

And ports that offer on-site rail and barge connections also reduce congestion on the roads. In the UK, our London Gateway and Southampton terminals – ports that can accommodate the longest freight trains – avoid the need for 300,000 trucks on UK roads each year.

In Antwerp, our multipurpose terminal runs entirely on green energy and opens at night to help keep the number of truck visits down. Its multimodal offering combines rail, with connections to the 1,500km-long Belgian waterway network and out to the pan-European river and canal network. That means 35% of all cargo is transported by barge.

Investing in Europe

Earlier this year, we strengthened our Inland Europe network by launching a new rail service between the Upper Rhine region and the Port of Rotterdam. This is a major addition to our network, providing resilient trimodal transport – road, rail and waterway – solutions between European deep-sea ports and our network of 12 inland terminals.

Our intermodal approach, with a focus on flexibility, has shown its worth in the current drought in Europe. With lower water levels reducing barge traffic on major rivers including the Rhine in Germany, we deployed a combination of alternatives including rail and trucks to ensure the flow of goods can continue. 

In the case of the Rhine, we chartered 15 trucks to use as a truck bridge and established an interim hub point at Krefeld lower down the river, linking there via rail and truck. This example underscores the case for intermodal – with the many different modes able to relieve each other when the system comes under stress and the inbuilt flexibility alleviates some of the pressures.

While our investment and our emphasis on expanding our network in Europe is designed to reinforce the resilience of the system and underpin future growth, greater collaboration and coordination with our partners in industry, government and port authorities will be key to unlocking the full potential.

While we are happy with the progress we are making across our global business and particularly at our European terminals, there is still a way to go to make the system more sustainable and more resilient. Working together can help meet the demands of customers, corporates and governments across the region.

All businesses are under pressure to deliver products on time, quickly and with a lower impact on the environment. We are responding to this growing need by offering and investing in trimodal solutions across Europe. While current supply chain conditions are challenging, they also present great opportunities to reconsider and address how we provide sustainable and reliable transportation.