Intermodal transport in Central and Southern Europe responds to geopolitical challenges

2024/03/07 at 10:53 PM

Intermodal transport in Central and Southern Europe responds to geopolitical challenges

In recent years, Central and South-Eastern Europe has been a region where intermodal transport based on the north-south and east-west corridors has been developed very dynamically. The development of the sector is increasingly influenced by strategic issues – this results from the Baltic, Adriatic, Black Sea – new markets and directions for intermodal transport and sea ports debate, which took place within the International Railway and Intermodal Congress organised by Oltis Polska and První Signál. The substantive partner of the event is the publisher of the IntermodalNews.pl website.

Intermodal transport in Central and Southern Europe responds to geopolitical challenges
Photo: intermodalnews.pl

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine resulted in the redirection of investment activity of logistics companies and carriers operating in Central Europe. “Metrans adopted the principle of developing intermodal services towards the south. We have traditionally served the Port of Koper, and we have recently expanded our network to include the ports of Trieste and Rijeka. Metrans relies its transport operations on a network of shuttle connections between terminals and ports, which are convenient for customers and ensure predictability in logistics. Due to infrastructure limitations in Austria regarding the gross weight of trains, we chose Hungary as a hub for transport in this region. It is especially important today when we move heavy containers to Ukraine. The Middle Corridor, on the other hand, is an idea that was created a few years ago but has not had any practical application so far. Transport on this route started after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Currently, there are signals that China is interested in the functioning of this corridor to diversify its railway connections with Europe in addition to the route through Russia and other countries”, said Mariola Legierska, Key Account manager for CIS&CHINA direction at Metrans.

“The European Union is interested in developing the Middle Corridor and has declared the 10-billion-euro investment in infrastructure modernisation along this route. There is a visible change in Europe’s approach to the countries of Central Asia. The West wants to draw them away from Russia’s influence”, added Sandra Baniak, an analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies.

Resilience to crises

The intermodal transport industry must be flexible and prepared for various unexpected situations, such as changes in transport routes. “In intermodal transport, trains often cross borders, therefore, the conditions for admission to the route must be met in all countries, and whether the train can be 600- or 750-metre-long has a significant impact on costs. Currently, approximately 40 per cent fewer goods reach Europe through the Red Sea, which forced the reconfiguration of logistics also on land. Moreover, we are still experiencing an economic slowdown. It is not known whether ocean vessels will continue to call at Gdańsk or whether this port will become a feeder terminal”, said Lukas Polaczek, Head of Intermodal at DB Cargo Polska.

“There is a risk that ocean carriers, due to the need to circumnavigate Africa, will limit the number of ports served by ocean container ships to shorten transit time”, added Sandra Baniak.

These concerns are shared by other participants in the debate. “We should remember the port of Wilhelmshaven, built by Hapag-Lloyd, which will want to encourage its new partner, Maersk, to this port. However, after Maersk’s departure, Baltic Hub acquired the CMA CGM service. However, when it comes to alternatives to maritime transport, I believe that an intermodal connection through the Caspian Sea has no chance for development. It is too complicated and expensive service, with too many transhipment operations, and passes through countries that cannot be 100 per cent certain. The traditional northern route running through Poland is beneficial to us because it has allowed us to develop logistics services. Poland somehow joined the solution created for handling freight between Germany and China, and we are benefiting from it now”, said Marek Tarczyński, chairman of the board of the Polish Chamber of Forwarding and Logistics.

Role of military mobility

In recent years, the Baltic-Adriatic Corridor has been working better and better due to infrastructure investments. “I look with great admiration at the construction of the Divača-Koper railway line. Today, for full container loads, the Port of Koper’s reach covers 80 per cent of the Polish market. This is a favourable situation for forwarders because it expands the logistics space. Currently, we can use Polish ports, Bremerhaven or Koper, which is a great advantage for Polish foreign trade”, noted Marek Tarczyński.

The war in Ukraine caused a change in thinking about infrastructure investments. Military mobility is becoming increasingly important in their planning. “Until recently, decision-makers in Brussels were not aware of the importance of the north-south military corridor. This passageway is important for military mobility. The planned terminal in Świnoujście will also be essential for this sector and may replace the Port of Bremerhaven for NATO, which has a limited access infrastructure. The CEF includes funds for dual-use investments and Central European countries benefit from this money. Due to new security threats, the Baltic countries accelerated work on the Rail Baltica project”, noted Sandra Baniak.

What’s next with privatisation?

The new geopolitical situation also influenced the attitude towards the issue of privatisation of logistics infrastructure. “Five-six years ago, there was a visible trend to privatise logistics infrastructure because public operators were not always effective. Today, the approach has changed slightly and the privatisation process has slowed down. Currently, the prevailing view is that critical infrastructure should be under public control, just like railway infrastructure”, said Petr Rožek, executive director of the Association of Forwarding and Logistics of the Czech Republic.

“A good solution has been adopted in Poland, according to which port infrastructure belongs to the state, and port authorities act as leasers of land to private terminal operators who conclude contracts for 20-30 years. Strategic security issues are also taken into account in these agreements. Consent to concluding such an agreement must be given by the Minister of Infrastructure and geopolitical factors are taken into account in these decisions. A similar situation is in Germany, where decisions on ownership changes in terminals in Hamburg are approved not only by the Land of Hamburg but also by the federal government. There is currently a heated debate in Germany regarding this transaction. The concerns include the possibility of acquiring shares in the largest intermodal operator in the region, Metrans, by the largest shipping line, MSC”, noted Marek Tarczyński.

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