Intermodal strategies for UK railways
Millions of tons of fresh and frozen foods, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, flowers and other temperature-sensitive goods are transported safely and efficiently across the United Kingdom (U.K.) every day. These products move along a highly effective multimode transportation, storage and distribution network that is commonly called the “cold chain.”
The bulk of perishable freight travels on the roadways in refrigerated trucks and trailers pulled by diesel tractors. But the role of railroads in the cold chain has the potential to expand significantly through the use of advanced intermodal technologies and practices that make it easier and more efficient for hauliers to use more than one mode of transportation to move refrigerated loads.
Intermodal freight service today accounts for the transport of just 5-7 percent of total European freight tonnage, according to the Spanish Journal of Agriculture Research. That percentage is expected to grow because the European Union and U.K. would like to shift a larger share of freight transportation to rail or waterway. The shift is part of a broader effort to take trucks off the road and reduce the environmental footprint of transporting freight.
In addition, food safety has become a global priority. This has caused governments, food producers and distributors, retailers and consumers to examine how perishable items are produced, transported, stored and marketed. The efficient, safe transportation of perishable food items is a high priority for the U.K., which is one of the world’s leading food-trading nations.
With their efficiency, reliability and relatively small environmental impact per ton-mile, U.K. railways have the opportunity to benefit from these megatrends and capture a larger share of the cold chain transportation market.
Refrigeration technologies enable intermodal transport
Technology advancements are making intermodal transport of refrigerated goods easier, more practical and less expensive. Manufacturers have developed refrigerated trailers that are equally well-suited for road and rail use.
Filled with perishable loads, refrigerated semitrailers can be pulled along the road by a diesel tractor for a portion of their journey and then taken to a railway loading yard where the temperature-controlled container is disconnected from the trailer chassis and loaded onto a flatcar. Improving this critical interface between the road network and the rail network is essential to gaining broader acceptance for intermodal freight transportation.
Refrigerated trailers are equipped with independent refrigeration units that control temperatures within an optimum range throughout the cargo’s journey. This refrigeration unit is powered by a diesel engine with its own fuel tank and control system. The unit operates independently when the trailer is removed from the tractor and transferred to a railcar.
Leading trailer manufacturers have developed new “swap-body” trailer designs that are specifically built to withstand the unique stresses of intermodal transportation while also improving the process of transferring refrigerated loads between a trailer chassis and railcar. The efficiency of this process is particularly important in the world of refrigerated transport, which requires the seamless management of cargo flow to ensure product quality and freshness.
Once this challenge is met, hauliers are able to take advantage of the inherent cost and reliability advantages of adding a rail component to long distance refrigerated cargo transportation. According to industry statistics, rail transportation is almost always more cost-effective than truck transportation for distances of 750 kilometers or more.
Manufacturers improve refrigeration unit performance
The manufacturers of temperature-controlled equipment have developed a variety of innovations that help make intermodal transportation a viable alternative for hauliers of refrigerated loads.
For example, refrigeration units for trailers that will be used on both road and rail need to be autonomous. While a tractor driver can stop to refuel the refrigeration unit’s fuel tank, refueling is not possible once the trailer is loaded on a flatcar. Operators need to develop processes to ensure that the units have adequate fuel supplies for both scheduled trips and potential delays.
For their part, refrigeration unit manufacturers have made significant fuel-efficiency advancements, with some demonstrating improvements of 20 percent compared to previous-generation engines. Today’s high-performance, low-emission diesel engines reduce operating costs, extend intervals between refueling, enhance safety and flexibility, and reduce the engine’s environmental impact.
Refrigeration units for intermodal trailers are especially designed to improve reliability by protecting sensitive components during the critical – and often rugged – transfer between modes of transportation. Manufacturers test their equipment in laboratories and real-world situations to improve durability against shock, vibration, thermal stress and other factors. Their goal is to produce equipment that is capable of ensuring temperature control over thousands of hours of operation without operator intervention.
Special emphasis is being placed on the fuel monitoring system, which can potentially affect the reefer’s reliable operation. Today’s sophisticated fuel processing systems go beyond the accurate measurement of fuel quantity to incorporate filtering, water-trapping and heating features that enable continuous operation regardless of fuel quality or weather conditions.
Leading manufacturers have also addressed reefer unit battery dependability issues by using new lead agglomerated battery technologies. With regular maintenance and testing, these new-generation batteries virtually eliminate the risk of battery failure during all phases of cargo transportation.
Fleet management technologies improve intermodal performance
Integrated communications and data processing technologies provide today’s refrigerated transport hauliers with unprecedented levels of information about their loads. These technologies have been adapted to meet the specific needs of intermodal transport.
For example, vehicle tracking tools provide refrigerated transporters with both real-time and historical data on cargo in transit. This enables them to improve efficiency, track and secure their assets, and provide their customers with highly accurate location information and delivery estimates.
In addition, these technologies let operators continuously monitor load conditions from a central location, regardless of whether the cargo is in the road or rail phase of its trip. The onboard recorder provides a wide range of information including:
- real-time and historical temperature information;
- diagnostic records to improve scheduled and unscheduled maintenance processes;
- alarm messages, including low-fuel alerts that may require emergency refueling; and
- security information to help track and recover cargo that is diverted from its scheduled route for dishonest purposes.
These and other new technologies will help operators build a business case for adopting intermodal strategies as part of an overall approach to refrigerated transportation.
The combination of higher fuel costs, tougher environmental regulations, greater emphasis on safety and higher performance demands from customers will continue to put pressure on U.K.’s large and growing refrigerated transportation industry. Expanded use of intermodal transportation will no doubt help address these and other challenges while also creating new growth opportunities for the nation’s railways.
Michel Poinsignon is European product manager for Thermo King, a leading global provider of transport temperature control systems and services, and a brand of Ingersoll Rand.
For more information, please contact Heidi McGuire.
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