When we talk about options to deliver goods from Europe to the CIS, the first to come to mind, of course, is road transport. More than half of all freight traffic on this route goes by road. It will continue to rise in popularity as infrastructure continues to develop, competition increases, and prices fall.
Is railway transportation from Europe therefore a relic fated to remain on the margins of logistics history? Or will it maintain relevance regardless?
To understand rail’s role in modern logistics, we spoke with Dmitry Pokhodenko, an expert in rail transportation at AsstrA-Associated Traffic AG:
Dmitry, for situations demanding versatility and flexible services that accommodate specific cargo characteristics, is rail an obviously poor choice? Or is that only a first impression?
In rail freight transportation, it is possible to choose rolling stock appropriate for specific goods. For example, for palletized cargo a covered wagon will be used, whereas a truck would be used to ship it by road. Similarly, a dump truck would be used to move sand, coal, or equipment via road and a gondola car can do the same by rail.
To transport liquids like juices or milk or dangerous goods like fuel or chemical products, rail tanks are used. With proper coordination between rolling stock owners and railways, you can carry almost any cargo in containers. Specialized rolling stock exists for certain groups of goods like coal or grain, for example. Therefore, do not give up on rail transportation just because cargo seems to be non-standard.
Organizationally speaking, what do customers prefer: cheap or fast?
In recent years, rail freight transportation tariff policies for shipments between Europe and the CIS have changed. Carriage is not always profitable, least of all over short distances. After a number of crises leading to lower road transport prices, tariffs for railway transportation grew. Prices for rail are set once a year, and quarterly changes are possible only if revised according to fluctuations in the Swiss franc exchange rate. This price stability did not help rail freight demand, because average rail transport prices were higher than those of road transport. In addition, today’s clients demand both low prices and speed. It is not always possible to provide railway transportation that is as fast as road transport.
On the other hand, rail is an optimal choice in a number of cases involving, firstly, producers with large, stable flows of raw materials. As a rule, these producers have their own rail access roads and entire trains are sent regularly within and between Europe and the CIS.
Secondly, rail is usually the best option for senders arranging the delivery of heavy cargo of more than 20-22 tons to the CIS or 25 tons to the EU. Above these levels, cargo is considered a heavy load. For rail, 50 or 60 or even 70 tons is standard. The carrying capacity of a covered wagon is up to 68 tons, and for a platform wagon 71 tons. If you use conveyors for oversized cargo, by rail you can transport up to 240 tons. Therefore, if the client wants to transport a heavy load as one standard shipment, we suggest railway transport as the first option.
As for the dimensions of the cargo, here also rail has an advantage over road transport. Cargo classified as oversized for road transport fits within the limits of normal loading dimensions for transportation by rail.
And the final, third scenario where the railway is the best choice involves combined transport schemes. In my opinion, this is the most effective logistics solution from Europe to the CIS, in terms of both flexibility along the route and pricing. The cargo is transported by cars to the Polish border, where it is reloaded into containers and wagons and delivered by train to the final recipient. The advantage of combined transportation is that it takes advantage of the strengths of both road and rail transport. After all, road vehicles provide speed but less attractive pricing, while trains have distinctively "tasty pricing" and offer comprehensive safety during transportation. Therefore a combined scheme overcomes many challenges.
Dmitry, what do you recommend to customers who plan to rely exclusively on rail?
When shipping between the EU and CIS, it is important to remember the difference in gauge widths and always allow time for transshipment unless the goods are in containers that can be simply transferred from one platform to another. Shipments involving border crossings and repacking can take between 2-4 days. Of course, timing can vary according to season and border terminal congestion.
Remember that if there are not enough wagons available for immediate transshipment, a load must wait in its original container until a wagon is available. Time is money and these delays can be expensive. It should be noted that in recent years the situation at most border crossings has normalized and processes are largely uninterrupted. The system of penalties is strict because any failure or inconsistency blocks railway traffic. On the other hand, railways themselves are interested in preventing such breakdowns and constantly aim to improve infrastructure.
If a special wagon or platform is needed for the cargo, plan your railway freight forwarding in advance. Such wagons are usually booked far in advance, and the cost of "catching the last train" is unlikely to please clients.
Summing up, if an AsstrA client wants to transport cargo from Europe to the CIS, an AsstrA employee asks for three pieces of information: Do you have a heavy load, regular cargo flows, or flexible delivery timing? If we hear "yes" in the answers, then rail transportation is usually the best option for that client.