Old new solution: why Russia relaunches container transport in open wagons

2021/12/08 at 12:57 PM

In November, the container train consisting of 56 open wagons was launched from the Nakhodka-Vostochnaya railway station to the logistics terminal in the outskirts of Moscow. The containers with goods were transported inside the open wagons. Such an extraordinary decision was made to solve the logistics crisis at the Russian Far East ports overloaded with Chinese and Korean imports. Will this “pandemic-caused” solution take roots at the Russian Railways?

In August 2021, Russian Railways (RZD) allowed the Far Eastern Railway, its regional division, to provide the test shipments until the end of the year. In September, the first test containers in open wagons were carried by the Freight One company, Russia’s largest private rail transport operator.

Solution from the past

Actually, this year’s shipments of containers in open wagons are not new for the Russian rail freight sector. Before 2014, Freight One, the Russian Railways and some other companies regularly used this option in the background of a fitting platforms shortage. Before 2014, 96 per cent of containers at the Far East had been loaded into the open wagons (on the whole for Russian Railways – about 2 per cent). But after detecting flagrant violations of the rules for placing containers inside wagons, this kind of transport had been forbidden until this summer.

Even being placed in a proper way (using wooden supports and frame) containers in open wagons are still dangerous to transport by the railway, especially at the descents. The main risk is caused by the axis of the open wagon that does not correspond to the container’s pivot points. Seven years ago, numerous violations of the containers’ placement rules became the reason for the ban.

Airbags for moving containers in open wagons, source: JSC Vostochny Port

This year, the market came up with the idea to place containers inside open wagons in a new way, by using inflatable airbags. They are placed into the open wagon between the container and the wagon wall and fix the container’s position inside the wagon. These bags can support up to 30 tonnes.

Are the fitting platforms operators in danger?

There is no doubt that this “old-new” solution will take over part of the cargo traffic from the businesses using fitting platforms. The negative reaction from some companies, particularly Trans–°ontainer and FESCO, is understandable. After the 2014 ban, the private operators started investing in the flat wagons, have been adding up to 2,000 units each month. The new decision of the Russian Railways could reduce their investment liquidity.

Loading containers into open wagons, source: JSC Vostochny Port

The state company’s position is that transporting containers in open wagons at the particular routes will not upset the fitting platform operation market balance. Due to this position, so far “loading containers into open wagons at sites not involved in organized container shipments, where it is possible to carry out loading operations with an extended standard of time” is meant. The company usually considers that these sites are “not of interest to large container operators”.

The other side of the coin is the cost price of transportation. As specialists say, the lifting capacity of the open wagon cannot be used more than 50 per cent in case of transporting containers inside. But the surplus of open wagons is also a strong argument. Also, for the shippers, the excess storage of containers in the port or terminal may cost more than transporting them with open wagons. They could benefit from accelerating the containers’ movement while the Russian Railways could feel the infrastructure load relief.

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