Moving waste: how rail contributes to circular economy in Switzerland

2022/02/03 at 4:10 PM

Year by year, European railway undertakings are looking for new solutions to decarbonise freight transport. Some are implementing new rolling stock; others are looking for new types of freight to shift more volumes from roads to rails. SBB Cargo is in the latter group. The Swiss national rail freight operator believes that waste has a great potential for the development of rail and a circular economy in the country. Why?

The answer to the above question can be found in the following figures: more than 6.1 million tonnes of municipal waste are burnt at the incineration plants in Switzerland every year. From 1 tonne of rubbish, 220 kilogrammes of slag are produced. This means that 6.1 million tonnes of waste turn into over 1.3 million tonnes of slag. The material, which is a grey, granular mixture of sand and gravel, has to be transported to a bioreactor landfill because it falls out of the material cycle. And this is a great opportunity for SBB Cargo to increase its freight volumes by moving waste by rail. To do this, the railway undertaking applied an extraordinary solution.

ACTS roll-off container for waste, source: ACTS Abroll-Container-Transport-Service

Roll-off containers

Starting from spring 2021, SBB Cargo in partnership with ACTS Abroll-Container-Transport-Service has been carrying slag from an incineration plant in the vicinity of Geneva to the landfill in Boécourt, the Canton of Jura, for a distance of around 200 kilometres. As the canton authority prescribes the use of rail for transporting waste for a distance of more than 60 kilometres, most of the route is run by the waste-dedicated freight trains of SBB Cargo. The trucks are used only for the first- and last-mile delivery on short sections, namely from the incineration plant to the nearby station in the Canton of Geneva, and from the Delémont station to the bioreactor landfill in Boécourt, the Canton of Jura.

There is no transhipment of waste from trucks to wagons as ACTS uses its own unique solution. It is the roll-off containers that allow combining both modes of transport. Each box of this type with a payload of up to 26 tonnes is easily reloaded from a truck to a train by using a special mechanism. No additional cranes, no reach stackers or other lifting equipment are needed. The operation is performed by a truck driver in a few minutes. Six to eight roll-off containers with slag are being daily moved from Geneva to Jura in such a multimodal way.

Loading metal scrap into wagons at Birsfelden, source: SBB Cargo

Scrap metal

Another type of waste that can be potentially shifted from road to rail is metal scrap. In 2021 SBB Cargo started to transport metal scrap from the Swiss Rhine Ports to the Stahl Gerlafingen plant. To this end, the Swiss rail freight operator established a two-year partnership with Stahl Gerlafingen, the country’s leading recycler focused on scrap metal, and Ultra-Brag, the Swiss logistics provider that operates a network of intermodal terminals.

The parties agreed to annually transport up to 100,000 tonnes of metal scrap from abroad, mainly from France and Germany, to Switzerland by using inland waterways and railways. Ultra-Brag is responsible for delivering, storing and loading metal scrap at its terminal in Birsfelden on the Rhine river, SBB Cargo moves it Gerlafingen for recycling at the Stahl Gerlafingen plant, which produces 99 per cent of its products for structural and civil engineering as well as the machine and metal industry from steel scrap from Switzerland and abroad. According to the Swiss railway undertaking, such a combination of barges and trains will result in reducing road traffic by up to 4,000 truck trips every year. “All three companies benefit from this, and not least the environment,” SBB Cargo sums up.

Transhipment of metal scrap from barge to wagons at Birsfelden, source: SBB Cargo

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