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Trends 12/08/2009

12 August 2009

Continued downswing in intermodal transport in the first half of 2009

Container throughput and land transport down by 20%, but bottom may have been reached

The global crisis had a particular impact on international maritime shipping and container transport. During the first quarter of 2009, container throughput in Western European ports fell by 18 per cent. Container volumes declined even more in Eastern Europe and St. Petersburg recorded a minus of 38 per cent during the same quarter. For the first half of 2009, Rotterdam, Europe’s largest container port, reported a fall in container throughput by 15 per cent, down to 4.6 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).

For the first quarter of 2009, “Deutsche Bahn” recorded a decline in freight traffic of 24 per cent and predicts a minus of 7.5 per cent for the whole of 2009. Similarly, SNCF of France reported for the same period a decline in freight traffic of 28 per cent, with a dramatic fall in steel and automobile transport in the order of 50 per cent. Similarly, the Russian Railways recorded a minus of 27 per cent during the first quarter of 2009 and expect a decline of 20 per cent for the second quarter.
With a particularly bad performance in January 2009 (down by 36 per cent in Western Europe), it is likely that UNECE member countries have recorded a fall in rail freight of around 20 per cent during the first half of 2009.
Comparable data showing recent developments in road and inland water transport are not yet available for the UNECE region. However, data obtained through the electronic toll systems on highways in Germany, Austria and Italy indicate a decline in lorry traffic of 16 per cent, 17 per cent and 13 per cent respectively for the first five months in 2009. International road traffic seemed to have declined even more (minus of 18 per cent in Germany).
Few data are available for traffic on European inland waterways, but estimates indicate a decline of up to 50 per cent in traffic for the first quarter of 2009.
The outlook for the remainder of 2009 is bleak even though many so-called “experts” believe that the bottom of the cycle has been reached.  Container throughput in European ports has apparently stabilized in July 2009 and is expected to increase slightly in the second half of 2009.

Intermodal transport declines between 17 and 30%; RoLa less hit

The first quarter of 2009 showed a continued downward trend in intermodal road-rail transport. In Germany, “Kombiverkehr”, the largest European intermodal transport operator, reported a decline in traffic in the order of 18-20 per cent and expects a similar decline for the rest of the year. The French intermodal transport operator GNTC even reported a decline in traffic of 30 per cent and up to 50 per cent on specific routes. Intercontainer Austria reported a down turn in the order of 17 per cent and the Swiss operator HUPAC saw a minus of 20 per cent during the same period.

Intermodal container transport in port hinterland traffic, representing around 60 per cent of total intermodal traffic in Europe, did apparently not decline more dramatically than overall intra-European transport in the first three months of 2009. The specialized German port hinterland operators, Transfracht and HHLA Intermodal, also recorded traffic slow-downs in the order of 20 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

Only the Austrian intermodal transport operator OKOMBI, offering Rolling Highway (RoLa) transport services mainly across the Alps, did a little better and saw a fall in traffic of slightly less than 10 per cent in first quarter of 2009.

In general, European intermodal transport operators predict an overall decline in traffic in the order of 10 to 20 per cent for the remainder of 2009.

First indications for modal shift

First indications for a modal shift towards road transport are visible. This seems only logical since the cost structure of road transport is more flexible than that of rail and intermodal transport and fuel prices have declined considerably since its peak in 2008. This has led to price reductions in long-distance road transport between 20 and 30 per cent during the past few months. Also reduced transport volumes favor, in principle, the deployment of small and flexible road transport units. 

These theoretical underpinnings seem to be confirmed by data from Switzerland, which indicate that a modal shift from intermodal rail to road transport has already taken place across the Alps. Based on data for the first quarter of 2009, intermodal transport across the Alps is expected to decrease in 2009 by 13 per cent, compared to 8 per cent for road transport.  These projections will, however, only hold if intermodal transport operators are willing and able to uphold their present dense network of national and international lines and services.

Should the crisis persist until the end of 2009, it is likely that the European intermodal transport network will need to be thinned out considerably and further loss of market shares would then be inevitable.

UNECE Working Party will discuss impact on intermodal transport in October

More information and reactions of intermodal transport operators, railways and Governments are contained in a secretariat report that will be considered at the next session of the UNECE Working Party (Geneva, 12-13 October 2009): http://www.unece.org/trans/wp24/wp24-official-docs/documents/ECE-TRANS-WP24-2009-06e.pdf