Blog by Pieter van den Bold, Managing Director at Innovatrain AG


Hundreds of meters of waggons making their way across the countryside on a journey from, say, Rotterdam to Milan: the freight train is seen as a traditional mode of transport for long distances.

But for the sake of the environment and to help tackle widespread traffic congestion, freight trains should become a viable option for shorter distances too. Intermodal transport combining road and rail has to become more attractive from a cost point of view.

Compatible with standard-sized containers

The key lies in developing new transhipment techniques. Traditional terminals equipped with cranes to lift the container from the truck to the train and vice versa tend to be multi-million euro investments. The price per transhipment obviously reflects this – despite the fact that much of the infrastructure has been built with subsidies.

What’s more a crane requires space. Container terminals are mostly confined to specific areas and trucks often have to make a detour to reach them. More precious time will be lost if they have to queue up and wait for their turn at the crane.

Thus the focus remains on pure road transport and part of the industry turns to jumbo trucks. But as traffic jams grow, so does the drive to find other solutions.

There have been several experiments with so called ‘horizontal transhipment’ based on systems that can do without cranes. Crucial for these efforts is the compatibility with standard-sized containers – otherwise entire container parks would become redundant.

Tighter time schedules

At Innovatrain AG in Switzerland we are proud of having developed a system that meets this condition. Our product ContainerMover is a device that can be fixed on the truck chassis where, thanks to its two extendible beamers, it can move containers to and from a train. In order for this to be possible, the train waggons are equipped with special frames – which, by the way, can be taken off if the client wants to revert the wagons back to their original state.

The process becomes faster and more flexible. A ContainerMover-truck simply needs a 3-meter long strip of asphalt road next to a train track to do the job. Clients can search a suitable location for the transhipments. Maybe a rail track is available on an industrial site nearby.

But above all there are substantial gains in time. The transhipment itself – or ‘Move’ as we call it – is completed in just a few minutes.

At what point the investment in the material starts to pay off has to be calculated anew for each client. But for companies relying on a high frequency of transhipments cost cutting can be substantial. Tighter time schedules suddenly come within reach.

A further distinctive advantage is the potential of CO2-emission reductions, for which an increasing number of companies are now setting targets. Calculations for existing clients show cuts of 50% and more are possible.

Like a commuter train

In our Swiss home market ContainerMovers have been used for several years in retail logistics. Abroad, we are gradually gaining ground.

But it’s not only about finding new clients. The case for railway transport has to be made elsewhere too, be it among politicians or those at the institutions that run a country’s rail infrastructure. In many cases these institutions used to belong to the state railways but now operate as semi-public agencies. If they are willing to consider new models of slot allocation and train path pricing, short and agile freight trains will eventually get a chance to operate in urban areas – in a similar way as commuter trains do.

Another issue is the scarcity of the ground in densely populated areas. A piece of waste land near a railway station can make the perfect spot for transhipment. But if real estate agents are eying the same square meters it might become tempting for local authorities to allocate the ground to a prestigious building project.

We say: society cannot go on building apartment blocs and offices without looking into the question of how to provide the people working and living there with food, clothes and other necessities. It is time to let rail freight transport take over part of the distribution.

Cost saving potential ContainerMover (€ per move)