Under increasing environmental pressures, risings costs and continual over-tonnaging, the major players on the global freight market are turning to multi-modal transport systems as a cheaper, faster and more reliable option. Rail-air multi-modal freight systems harbour great potential in terms of sustainability, cost and efficiency.

A number of feasibility studies and trial runs have shown that establishing a direct link between rail networks and major airport hubs is entirely possible and, in theory, preferable. However, the scheme is still in its infancy and rail-air connections have yet to prove their worth as a standard international cargo transportation option.

Intermodal transportation via sea ports, roads and railways is already well-rooted within the freight market. According to the Global Intermodal Freight Transportation Market 2015-2019 report by research company Technavio, about 30% to 40% of all freight in any region is transported with the help of intermodal transportation.

So why is rail-to-air co-modality not already an established means of transport, much like the rest? The reason lies in the development of infrastructure over the years – while airports and railways were built and developed independently, the idea of designing and constructing mixed rail-to-air hubs has simply not happened on any meaningful scale.

The concept of connecting the two came primarily from necessity: globalisation, a free trading market and an increased amount of import-export goods have brought forward the need to both diversify and speed up delivery between countries.

“Increased trading activities have brought about a boom in the global intermodal freight transportation market,” said vice president of Technavio Faisal Ghaus in a press release.



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Over the past eight years, the European Union has been funding a cohort of co-modality projects under its Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) programme, which aims to increase connectivity in Europe through next-generation transport infrastructure; a number of these projects focus specifically on building links between railway corridors and local airports for both freight and passenger transportation.

Work in progress: the investigation and construction of rail-air systems

One initiative under the TEN-T programme commissioned a cohort of co-modality projects between 2009 and December 2015. Also dubbed the Global Project, the scheme funded six master plans which focused on testing and designing rail-air intermodal freight terminals at various international airports throughout Europe.

In January 2009, studies began at Rome’s Fuimicino Airport. With a strong tourist appeal and an important role in the global industry and service sector, Fuimicino expects 50 million passengers in 2020 and about 90 million by 2040. This amount of traffic made it the perfect contender for a new, fully integrated intermodal hub.

The area’s three main transport operators, Aeroporti di Roma, Rete Ferroviaria Italiana and the National Autonomous Roads Corporation (ANAS), signed a memorandum of understanding to carry out the study and to define the preliminary design of the multi-modal transport system.

In February 2015, the airport announced a €12bn investment in Fuimicino’s transformation, after ADR and Italy’s state-owned train operator Trenitalia struck a deal to build the country’s first integrated air and rail transport system.

Genoa Airport is also earmarked for an intermodal transformation; a study is currently looking at the environmental impacts and execution requirements for the upgrade. Other key airports currently undergoing conceptual intermodality studies include Poland’s Wroclaw Airport and Romania’s Timisoara International Airport.

“A number of feasibility studies and trial runs have shown that establishing a direct link between rail networks and major airport hubs is entirely possible and, in theory, preferable.”

An ambitious freight-focused project is currently being planned for Slovenia’s Ljubljana Airport. Its master plan states that “the handling of cargo at Ljubljana Airport will develop positively until 2040”, a prediction made in 2007 by the airport’s Logistics Center. Their forecast was based on the pull-factor of a multi-modal hub for freight-forwarders. The final system, which is predicted to be fully operational in 2030, will see the construction of a new railway line between Ljubljana-Kranj-Jesenice and the state border, with a connection to the airport.

Opportunities and advantages: faster, greener, cheaper

Slovenia’s confidence in installing its new freight system echoes the findings of various studies which found strong opportunities and advantages to rail-air intermodality.

One such study was CO-ACT, a European-funded project looking at “creating viable concepts for combined cargo transport”. The two stages of the project focused on researching how fast cargo trains and networks should be developed within Europe and employing test trials for their implementation.

The study concluded that “there is definitely a market potential for fast train transport of cargo” and that “facilities throughout Europe can be developed to serve as multi-modal transhipment points”.

Rail-air transport has the edge in carrying time-sensitive materials, and it presents great opportunities for sustainability and greener journeys. As the CO-ACT research points out: “The solution to time constraints is found in the introduction of freight transport by air. The higher costs are justified by the ability to deliver to markets faster.”

Ralph Goldney, managing director at Railfreight Consulting, sees a wealth of opportunity in implementing the system. “Rail is considerably more environmentally beneficial than road, it significantly reduces CO2 emissions and there is the opportunity for using electrical vehicles for a considerable amount of the journey length,” he says. “And if the congestion charge becomes more of an issue, then rail can offer an opportunity to the consumer which road might not be able to do.”

Referring to who would benefit most from this system, Goldney says: “Fresh produce is probably of significance, as well as sea food and the opportunities it presents for that import-export market.”

“Further afield, possibly electrical equipment and also mobile phones. Something like 13,000 tonnes of mobile phones come into the UK, and whilst this equipment is time-sensitive there could be the opportunity to aggregate this into a railbourne commodity.”

A turning point in the development of rail-air freight transportation was the successful journey of Euro Carex in 2012, the first test of a high-speed freight train which travelled between Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and St Pancras International Station in London.

According to a press release at the time, the train, which has the potential load of 120 tonnes of parcels equivalent to seven trucks, proved “the efficiency, speed and environmental benefits of an intermodal transportation system combining air containers and high-speed rail network”.
It is expected that rail-air freight transport will lift the weight off of trucking, currently the biggest network in time-sensitive freight carriage, but one that increasingly comes with caveats. According to the Technavio report, “since most freight in intermodal transportation is sent via rail-road, the main challenge faced by the providers is the rising cost of fuel.”

Issues still to be ironed out

Certain challenges associated with a seamless integration between rail and air still remain. A report by the European Commission investigating efficiency improvements to support intermodality growth found that “Intermodal Freight Terminals (IFT) are the weakest links of the intermodal transport chain system and a major generator of cost.”

The study found “a lack of a coherent network of modes and interconnections between the modes in a number of high density corridors in Europe,” with problems around the practicalities of shifting cargo units from one mode of transport to the other. At the time, inadequate access by rail and other means to existing transfer points meant that transferring cargo was rendered both difficult and expensive.

“The issues with choosing rail are that it requires a reasonable amount of volume which can be difficult to aggregate.”

Another step towards better functionality is the handling of different loading units and the challenges this poses at the point of transfer. “Dealing with a variety of loading unit dimensions and different standards for transport means and infrastructure (often regulated differently by country and by mode) lowers the levels of interoperability between different modes and produces congestion and inefficiencies at terminals,” the report highlighted.

In a 2011 article discussing the global growth of high-speed rail systems, Amadeus Total Rail recognised that air-rail intermodality “cannot become a reality until we have the investment in infrastructure needed to make it viable”.

“High speed rail services either need to connect directly to international airports or effective transit systems between airport and station must be established to make transfers as seamless and efficient as possible,” the article concluded.

Heavy volumes can also pose a challenge, Goldney says: “The issues with choosing rail are that it requires a reasonable amount of volume which can be difficult to aggregate and it sometimes can struggle to compete time-wise with express, fast-track delivery. Now if these issues can be overcome, there are great opportunities.”

A push for innovation: trade concerns are breeding change

Wider challenges facing the global freight forwarding market are quickly pushing traders to turn to multi-modal transport options.
A 2014 report from Transport Intelligence entitled ‘Global Freight Forwarding’ pinpointed difficulties such as capacity concerns in the sea and air-freight markets and the traders’ slow adaptation to a changing global environment.

Overall, a growing trend towards regionalisation identified in the report, coupled with the ever-present worries of over-tonnaging, rising environmental awareness and the need for a speedier transit system, all present a strong potential for freight innovation.

Goldney draws confidence from the example of rail and deep-sea intermodal, where rail can carry the significant proportion of deep-sea goods. Based on that model, he thinks “a very high level of integration can be done”.

“There is a plan to be developed around some airports which would have high-speed rail connections for the express delivery of parcels to Spain, Russia and the UK. And there is a real opportunity there,” Goldney points out.

“What will happen is that they are looking to develop a very compelling rail-freight option which actually may save costs.”