Rail&Sea: "Big increase in combined breakbulk and container"

Edwin Moehlig (Rail&Sea) sees a big increase in consignments that arrive in Antwerp as conventional freight and are stuffed into containers there. With the rail shuttle Antwerp-Linz, they are being brought to Antwerp where previously there were none.

The multimodal forwarder Rail&Sea in Antwerp forms part of the Austrian Rail&Sea group and was set up in 2004. "Actually we have always been a conventional player," says Edwin Moehlig, Managing director. "We take the project as our starting point to think up rail-based conventional solutions. But if containerisation is suitable then we do that as well." 

Antwerp-Linz shuttle

In 2015 Rail&Sea introduced a rail shuttle between Antwerp and Linz in Austria in collaboration with Rail Cargo Logistics Austria. "We started with one train per week. Now it runs four and a half times per week, i.e. five departures from Antwerp and four from Linz. We have more North-South consignments than South-North. This is the opposite situation compared with when we started. Nobody thought we would be so successful. The fact that we have raised the capacity to the number of trains now running is thanks mainly to breakbulk."

Breakbulk-container combination

According to Moehlig there has been a shift from consignments that previously went by truck or even by rail to Hamburg, Bremen and partly Rotterdam, but that now go to Antwerp in conventional wagons. "In Antwerp they are stuffed into containers or continue on their way as breakbulk. But the biggest increase has been in consignments that arrive in Antwerp as conventional and are stuffed into containers there, giving a combination of breakbulk and container. Antwerp has become Austria's second-largest port after Koper. In 2015 we were still only N° 4. Two years ago we were N° 3, and now we are N° 2. We'll never overtake Koper, but because there are so many shipping lines in Antwerp serving different regions with both container and conventional freight, Antwerp is steadily gaining in volume. We still aren't present strongly enough in chemicals and petrochemicals, which have lots of potential," says Moehlig. 

According to him the choice of combined breakbulk and container is mainly due to the availability of lines and the shorter transit times. "Antwerp offers much shorter transit times than Hamburg or Koper. If you then combine the shorter transit time by rail with a much shorter transit time by sea, then you save four or five days compared with Hamburg, which makes a huge difference in the export chain. You must try to combine these advantages. It also has to do with the number of trading routes that are hardly served at all by conventional freight transport, as well as the freight transport rates; in many cases, containers are still cheaper than conventional shipping freight, although this situation is slowly changing. Some trading routes are seeing a shift back to conventional. It is up to us with our rail capabilities to support this combination of a conventional solution with the availability of containers in a port that offers added value in the form of transhipment centres and efficient handling facilities.

Combination of maritime with local

Rail&Sea is terminal-neutral in Antwerp, but it stood behind the concept of Antwerp Railhouse, a covered rail terminal operated by Steelduxx and Conti7 which entered operation in summer last year. "We are now one of the biggest players for paper in that warehouse, with consignments that previously did not come to Antwerp. These arrive here as conventional and are then stuffed into containers for export. We also do all the local distribution in Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands by truck. We currently focus on consignments that require some overseas and some local distribution. This offers the greatest added value, as we see it. Antwerp's role is not only to attract maritime freight but also to combine maritime and local freight. This demands efficient terminals, last mile solutions, IT solutions and finding the right partners."

Breakbulk and Antwerp

Whether Antwerp has a future in breakbulk depends on a number of factors, according to Moehlig. "Antwerp has know-how and capabilities that are difficult to find in other ports. Just look at the crane facilities, the flexible resources, the amount of space available and the number of terminals. Some ports have only one terminal. I think that in this respect Antwerp has a number of advantages, and if we can maintain the freight rates then I think it definitely has a future. However, we are not the cheapest, due among other things to the number of dock workers that have to be employed in each team. That's a sensitive issue, and is likely to remain so. On the other hand there is the willingness of the dock workers to find solutions and commit to them, and we should be grateful for this in Antwerp," he emphasises. 

Rail facilities

Another factor which according to Moehlig is important for the future of Antwerp is raising the efficiency of rail transport. "The initiatives by RailPort, which we are also working hard on, and things like the Antwerp-North rail fan are all very important for making rail more efficient. In many cases our rail services are still more expensive than in neighbouring countries. The last-mile costs are an important factor here. This is true not only of Antwerp but also of other Flemish ports. Something will have to be done about this in order to secure our future. I'm a breakbulk believer, breakbulk combined with containers. This applies also to imports that will no longer travel to the final consignee in the hinterland by container but instead will be given added value in the port and then travel on to the hinterland via other systems. We are already starting to see this. Breakbulk will always be an important foundation for the port of Antwerp," Moehlig concludes. 

Koen Heinen

These are the other articles in the dossier ‘Breakbulk’:
Breakbulk revival in Antwerp: preface to all the stories
Catrien Scheers: “Covid-19 will never undermine my faith in breakbulk”
Zimmer Staal operating at full capacity at terminal operator Euroports
Rollit Cargo anticipates growth in wind turbine market
Victrol carries bridges, machines and parts for offshore wind farms
Corona crisis confirms need for digital breakbulk platform
Biggest lifting job in Port of Antwerp in many years by Mammoet
Muriel Marquet (HSL): “Breakbulk is our core business”
CJ-ICM Logistics: “We do the craziest things”
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions invests in resources for breakbulk
Oldest port company Stukwerkers sees the sector changing rapidly
Van der Vlist Belgium expands its European hub at Zeebrugge
Jacques Vandermeiren: “Antwerp and breakbulk, a hole-in-one”