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The Importance of Rail Terminal Operation

Many railfreight operators focus on the line-haul speed of their trains, as a way of maximising the use of their assets. Whilst that is indeed valuable, it is important to remember that the return journey cycle of a train also includes two visits to terminals.

Poorly-planned or sloppily-executed terminal operation can just as easily affect train asset utilisation (and hence the price charged to customers) as much as problems during the line-haul segments.

To understand better the optimal management of road:rail transfer within terminals, Freight Arranger undertook specific loading and unloading trials in 2018 with various equipment at the Long Marston rail site in Warwickshire.

Whilst established major rail-heads may be able to afford overhead gantry cranes costing £5m apiece, cheaper and more manageable equipment is needed to provide the flexibility at terminals that new-to-rail customers may require. However, there is something of a trade-off between capital cost and the potential speed of container transfer between road and rail vehicles.

Rubber-tyred gantry cranes may not quite match the 2-3 minutes achievable with overhead gantry cranes, and may only be 15% of the price, but they are similarly based on fixed tracks which have to be roughly straight.

We undertook tests with both a Containerlift truck and a Kalmar forklift with multi-pallet handler. Containerlift trucks come with their own lifting equipment, and the technical term for them is “sidelifter”. The lift only works on the right-hand side of the truck (in direction of travel). The system is also relatively slow, taking up to 20 minutes to complete a transfer of container from road to rail and back. The supports also need to be retracted before the truck can move off again (for instance to be adjacent to the next railway wagon). This means that it would take an entire shift to swop all the containers off even a relatively-short 20-wagon train.

Multiple Containerlift trucks would therefore be required, in order to reduce terminal times to a duration which is commercially-viable for the trainset of wagons (say two hours). However, they do have the advantage that they can bring the first/deliver the last container on the train directly to/from the customer’s premises, without further lifting. They are obviously also very easily movable from terminal to terminal.

Further, almost no investment in the site would be needed to start an intermodal operation so they are a risk-reducer, whereas a reachstacker would require a reinforced pad and both types of crane would need rails or channels to run in.

Rail Freight

Containerlift truck

We have also examined the potential for palletised traffic by rail. However, what became clear during our trials was that considerable skill is needed by the operator, if pallets are to be loaded accurately within the rail vehicle.

In particular, the operator must start somewhere in the rail vehicle and work their way to both ends, hoping to leave an appropriately-small amount of space between loads, and still have sufficient space upon reaching the end van wall.

Our trials found problems with tine thickness, pallets out of alignment and variable pallet sizes, the impacts of all of which varied with the type of forklift. Timed results showed that using a larger forklift might actually be less productive than a smaller one.

Rail Freight

Kalmar forklift

In summary, the management of road:rail traffic transfer at terminals is not entirely straightforward, and needs careful prior design and precise ongoing management, if swift but robust timings are to be achieved.

Freight Arranger’s experiences based on the operational research described above give it the expertise to deliver to its customers – could that be you?

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