Using multimodal transport to lower CO2

written by IFCO SYSTEMS, 20th October 2020, in Stories

As part of our continuing efforts to improve sustainability and supply chain efficiency, IFCO has tested transporting empty IFCO RPCs to Spain by rail. This saves tons of CO2 emissions every week. Now we plan to double our rail shipments – and double our CO2 savings.

Just how much is a ton of CO2?

It’s hard for most people to visualize. This amount of carbon dioxide would fill 204,000 party balloons, or one big bubble ten meters in diameter, about as tall as a two-story building. Reducing CO2 emissions is among the reasons that IFCO has trialed a weekly rail service for empty Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) from Germany to Spain since 2018. We can now quantify that sending IFCO RPCs to Spain via rail lowers CO2 emissions by 1,012 kilograms per shipment. This year, we plan to double the railway routes in our multimodal transport strategy, providing twice these CO2 savings.

Basically, multimodal transport uses two means of carriage, road and rail, organized by one logistics company. Here’s what it involves: Each week, the shipments, in other words, truckloads of IFCO RPCs are driven from Hessen, Germany, to Luxembourg. There the freight containers are lifted off the trucks, loaded on the train and carried for more than 1,000 kilometers to Valencia, Spain, where the freight containers with IFCO RPCs continue via road to distribution centers and retailers.

Evaluating multimodal transport to Spain

"Currently, we send roughly 15,000 shipments of RPCs from Germany to Spain every year," says Anastasios Papadopoulos, who heads IFCO asset management for Europe. "We began testing the multimodal method to determine whether rail delivery times to Valencia – approximately 72 hours – were similar to transport by road alone," he explains. "Indeed, multimodal transport proves its worth. Virtually everything went according to plan, and we delivered 100 percent of our trial shipments on schedule."

Reasons for testing multimodal transport

Because trains burn less fuel per ton-kilometer than road vehicles, sending goods by rail is a greener alternative to road transport. Papadopoulos lists three primary objectives for IFCO’s trials:

1) First, to save CO2.

2) In addition, we wanted to ensure optimal use of truck load capacity.

3) And finally, transport by rail relieves restrictions on driving time.

In general, he adds, while ecological concerns often inspire firms to test environmentally-friendlier processes, adapting these could help keep logistic costs under control.

Getting in early and gathering empirical data

As the climate change debate heats up, everyone will have to reduce their CO2 output. Within the logistics industry, operators could soon face fines for using diesel or for high CO2 emissions, and increases in carbon taxes translate into higher fuel costs for transport companies.

Papadopoulos is convinced that higher fuel costs or fines will prompt logistics operators to increasingly shift cargo loads from roads to rail. "This is why we wanted to get in early to better understand what using multimodal transport involves. Now we know how this affects our operations, and we already have empirical data to back up our experience. Of course, we concentrate on the part of the business we are responsible for – delivering IFCO RPCs to growers and managing returns to our service centers. Yet we feel it is our responsibility to use and recommend the logistics methods that are most sustainable."

Reducing the number of trucks and drivers needed

Regarding commercial aspects such as truck capacity, IFCO has occasionally faced shortages of vehicles going from north to south, Papadopoulos explains, because logistics operators didn’t have return cargo booked for their drivers. Multimodal transport sends just the truck’s container by train, so it alleviates this situation, as each train takes 40 to 50 trucks off the roads. In this way, rail also offers an alternative to the strictly regulated driving times in Europe. "By loading the truck containers onto a train, we cover the longest leg of the journey without drivers," he says.

Other business factors make rail transport attractive as well. Logistics operators find that schedules are more reliable, because cargo transport less affected by road congestion or bad weather. On railways, no road tolls are levied, and there are fewer accidents, which means drivers and goods are less at risk. Generally speaking, products suffer less transport damage compared to haulage over rough roads.

Increasing cost efficiency

Moving IFCO RPCs to Spain efficiently and reliably also leads to fast filling and turnaround times, resulting in more economical shipments of fresh produce. Spain exports about 10 percent of the total global trade in fresh produce, roughly 13 million tons of fresh fruit and vegetables annually. More than 90 percent of Spain’s fresh produce exports – including citrus fruits, grapes, tomatoes and cucumbers – are distributed throughout Europe. This calls for huge volumes of IFCO RPCs to be sent to Spain. "We chose the Germany-Valencia route because it was the busiest one," says Papadopoulos.

And as for load capacity, space-saving IFCO RPCs have an extremely flat folded profile of only 28 mm. The reduced dimensions means that more RPCs fit on the pallets, which increases cost efficiency along with environmental savings – even more so during rail transport.

Expanding multimodal transport to other routes

In short, carrying IFCO RPCs by rail as one link offers advantages for the environment and for supply chain efficiency. To establish the service, IFCO has relied on the experience of the international logistics firm GEODIS. "We are proud to support IFCO in reaching its ambitious emissions reduction," says Stefan Koedel, Director Transportation, Contract Logistics Germany at GEODIS.

With the pioneering work and trial period behind us, IFCO will extend the service. "Getting started was the important thing," Papadopoulos adds. "Because now we can verify and quantify the real benefits." Going forward, IFCO will share our experience and push for extension with all our suppliers. In 2020, we will add at least one more railway route – which will double our CO2 savings. By continuing to build on multimodal transport in the coming years, we aim to move a significant percentage of IFCO RPCs by rail.

One really nice thing about using multimodal transport is that our customers do not notice whether IFCO RPCs arrive via road, rail or a combination of the two," Papadopoulos says. "They don’t need to make any changes, and there are no delays nor extra forms to fill out. Their ecological footprint simply becomes smaller along with ours – without any extra work on their part."

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