Ausgabe 36/2010

Rail Freight Revolution A Possible Solution to Europe's Clogged Roadways

Experts in the transportation sector are excited about CargoBeamer, a new German transshipment technology designed to shift more truck freight to the railways. The innovative system could ease congestion on the roads and help the environment.



For some people, the profession of long-distance truck driver used to be considered a dream job. Those days are long gone.

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Heft 36/2010
Warum so viele Deutsche einem Provokateur verfallen

Nowadays the freight business is so overcrowded that drivers hoping to get some rest -- as is required by law -- face a shortage of parking spaces. "The drivers often spend hours searching for a space," says Thomas Schröder, a freight hauler in Löbichau, a town in Germany's eastern state of Thuringia.

Schröder, the owner of trucking company TKS Drosen, is about to try out a new way to address the problem. In the future, three of his trailers will complete the trip from Leipzig in the east to Cologne in the west by rail, using an innovative new transport system. It's called CargoBeamer.

'Next Generation'

The new technology is significantly different from other systems currently in use. Unlike the so-called "rolling highway" system, CargoBeamer doesn't involve placing entire trucks onto special flatcars. Nor are cranes used to reload the cargo, as in the "combined transport" system.

Instead, the tractor pulls the trailer onto a special steel palette and deposits it there. Gripper arms installed in the ground then pull the palette, complete with the trailer, sideways onto a freight car. The side plate of the freight car is then closed and the load is ready to be moved (see graphic).

CargoBeamer is currently demonstrating how smoothly this loading process can be completed at a pilot facility in the eastern section of Leipzig. While it can take hours to load a train using cranes, the CargoBeamer method makes it possible to load an entire, 36-car freight train within 15 minutes, because all the freight cars can be loaded at the same time. Michael Baier, one of the inventors of the concept and chairman of the company, calls it the "next-generation freight transport system."

Railroad experts are also praising the invention. German national railroad Deutsche Bahn's logistics division, DB Schenker Rail, has studied the CargoBeamer principle in terms of efficiency and functionality. It concludes that it is an "innovative system suitable for railroad use."

Choking in Traffic

The CargoBeamer method could become a key technology in the fight to head off a looming disaster. Europe is choking in truck traffic. More than 70 percent of all goods in Germany are now being shipped by road. And the flow of goods will only increase -- by about 75 percent by the year 2025, according to an assessment by the German Transport Ministry.

But where is all this freight going to go? Germany's autobahn network is already overloaded today.

So far, most attempts to shift freight to the rails have failed. The "rolling highway" isn't transporting enough freight, because under that system the tractors are also loaded on the cars, which is unnecessary and takes up valuable space. The rolling highway system is only being kept in operation in places where the roads are hopelessly overloaded and is dependent on government subsidies.

The only method that makes economic sense is the "combined transport" system in which freight is loaded from trucks onto railcars. But it's slow, serves only a limited market and usually only works in railroad yards without overhead lines. Semitrailers need reinforced chassis and other modifications so that they can be lifted by cranes. This adds about €2,000 ($2,540) to the total cost and increases trailer weight.

Not surprisingly, crane loading isn't popular among haulage firms. Only 2 percent of semitrailers in Germany are compatible with cranes. For the vast majority of trucks, there is no economically efficient way to load their freight onto trains.

'Too Sincere'

This creates a huge potential market for CargoBeamer, which has been approved for the European rail system since July and is funded by some high-profile industrialists. Hans Albrecht, a major Munich-based investor, is the spokesman for the group of investors.

He uses a simple comparison to explain the logic of freight logistics. For Albrecht, long-distance transport using trucks is about as "pointless as taking a taxi from Hamburg to Munich." He is equally dismissive about the rolling highway system, comparing it to "taking along a taxi on a car train because you're worried you won't be able to find a cab at your destination." Using the same analogy, Albrecht likens a truck trailer being loaded onto a CargoBeamer train to a passenger boarding one of Germany's high-speed ICE trains.

Albrecht met the inventors of the CargoBeamer project, Michael Baier and Hans-Jürgen Weidemann, in the summer of 2007. Baier and his partner Weidemann were no wild-eyed amateurs, but seasoned engineers with plenty of business experience with the ABB industrial group. Baier was already in his mid-50s, while Weidemann, nine years his junior, holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering. He even turned down offers of professorships at various universities so he could finish the CargoBeamer project. What the two partners lacked was money.

"People like that are far too sincere for the financial world," says Albrecht. "They promise less than they can deliver. They leave investors like me open-mouthed in astonishment." In their business plan, the engineers had projected €15 million in investment capital and a three-year development period until the train system was approved. Instead, it took them only two years and cost €9 million.


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