There is widespread agreement in Europe that railways – as an environmentally friendly means of transport – will have to take on a significantly greater role in freight transport in the future. In Central/Eastern Europe, work is going on in full swing in order to catch up with Western Europe in terms of infrastructure quality and to make rail more competitive with road transportation, but the associated construction work poses major challenges for rail logistics. States on the eastern edge of the EU are working hand in hand with the logistics industry to further develop rail transport routes between China and Europe. While the prospects are promising, is the region truly ready for this additional volume – especially in the intermodal sector?
Background, Status and Potential
Rail Cargo Terminal - BILK (RCT-BILK) is located at the intersection of the European Freight Corridors RFC 6, 7, 9 and 11 and is thus optimally positioned to act as a hub connecting the flow of goods from all directions. In 2021, around 230,000 TEU were handled on the seven 750 m long and two 240 m long tracks with an area of 22 ha. In the greater Budapest area, terminal capacities are already being well utilised. RCT-BILK is also approaching its performance limit. There is no possibility of expansion in the immediate vicinity, so the only way to increase the transshipment volume is to use the resources more effectively. Next to digital solutions, effective workflows and a modern fleet of equipment, this also includes predictable train traffic.
Punctuality Is Everything
Nothing can improve or worsen capacity utilisation at a terminal faster than the punctuality of the trains. RCT-BILK has been working with German consultancy HPC Hamburg Port Consulting since the middle of last year to find the best way to increase their transshipment capacity. In its sensitivity analysis, HPC has determined that if an average of three out of eight trains at a terminal are delayed by 3 to 5 hours, the terminal’s maximum transshipment capacity can be reduced by up to 20 %.
Hub between East and West
Similar to the Budapest-Ferencváros marshalling yard – one of the largest marshalling yards in Hungary – the terminal is located in the direct vicinity of the Danube bridge, the conduit for nearly all freight traffic. Due to its central location, the BILK terminal functions as a hub for rail traffic between East and West, meaning great business potential, but also an enormous challenge at the same time, as connections need to be made at the terminal between the completely unpredictable traffic from the East and South, which sometimes arrives several days late, and the traffic from the West, which operates with strict time frames. Unfortunately, intermodal trains entering the country from western, southwestern or northwestern directions, i.e. trains from Germany or from the Adriatic ports, are all forced to change direction in Budapest-Ferencváros, yet it sometimes happens that there are no free tracks at the often overcrowded marshalling yard to receive the trains, forcing them to be parked at nearby stations. There could be some relief once the long-planned V0 railway line – allowing transit traffic to bypass Budapest – is built, but it is still only in the planning phase.
Construction Sites and Their Effects
Reconstruction of the Budapest-Belgrade line, which runs past the terminal, started in Hungary on 1 February 2022. In addition, reconstruction work is also being carried out at present on the Serbian section of this route, and the alternative routes are affected by track closures as well. Until Q2/2024, there will be 36-hour route closures in the direction of Bulgaria and, until Q3/2023, in the direction of North Macedonia / Greece. Renovation of the main Slovenian line connecting Hungary with the coastal region will cause the throughput capacity to be halved by the end of 2025. There are also often unforeseen delays at the Schengen borders due both a lack of uniform digital solutions and administrative problems.
Thanks to the ongoing modernisation of the railway infrastructure, there is hope that the railways will be able to significantly improve their competitiveness in the long term. For now, however, everyone has to face the challenges due to the construction work. Thus, RCT-BILK also has to prepare for the fact that, in the next few years, considerable unpredictability must continue to be expected in eastbound and southbound traffic and that part of the capacities will need to be reserved for absorbing these volatilities. Many customers have accepted the longer transport times, factoring them in when planning their logistics chain, but it is important to at least keep to the promised transport times. To ensure this, terminals and railway undertakings need to keep greater resources available than would otherwise be necessary in a more predictable operating environment, even at the expense of effectiveness. In addition, it must be arranged to have customers reliably and promptly informed of any changes in routes and transport times.
Once ongoing reconstruction of the main lines in the region has been completed, Hungary will be able to better exploit the potential of its optimal geographical location and fulfil its role as a major hub for rail traffic between East and West – while the improved predictability of train traffic will also help the region’s terminals, naturally including RCT-BILK as well, to utilise their capacities even more effectively.
This article appeared in a longer version on EI - Eurailpress (only in German)