Sustainability in multimodal transport of project goods: Cutting costs and emissions through intelligent logistics solutions

Sustainable transport is no longer merely a bonus option for the logistics sector – today, most industries require sustainable transport means and efforts to conserve resources from their logistics service providers. Kristiane Schmidt works in the Sustainable Solutions department at Contargo, one of the leading container hinterland logistics networks in Europe. The team releases a biennial sustainability report, discussing the current developments in the sector, as well as studies that investigate the effectiveness of implemented strategies and the potential of new approaches for sustainable transport. Stephan Weddrin is a project manager at Rhenus Project Logistics, the expert for the transport of heavy and oversized goods. The company aims to reduce emissions by optimising supply chains. We’ve interviewed both experts in their respective fields in order to find out why and how sustainable, multimodal transport plays an important role for project logistics.

Mrs. Schmidt in your recently released “sustainability report 2020 you investigated the advantages of multimodal transports over conventional truck-only approaches. Could you tell us a little more about what multimodal transports are?

KS: Multimodal means that you combine different modes of transport such as road, water or rail transports. At Contargo we focus on intermodal solutions, more precisely on combined transport. This means that we transport our containers in the main leg by rail, barge or truck. The pre or subsequent leg between the customer and the terminal takes place by truck.

Mr. Weddrin what role do intermodal transports play in project logistics?

SW: For us intermodal transports have become the new standard. We rarely see conventional transports that focus on a single mode when it comes to project logistics. Using barges and vessels for the main leg of the transport has proven to be the most efficient way of transport for most projects. While rail transports are less common because of their limitations in size, they are definitely an interesting option for standard project cargo such as accessories.

What is the advantage of a multimodal transport over a conventional truck-only approach when it comes to sustainability?

KS: In addition to advantages such as relieving the road and being very easy to plan, emissions are clearly in the foreground here. Each train can transport as many containers as approx. 54 trucks. This way a lot of emissions can be avoided, especially with existing overhead lines. About 190 containers can be transported on a barge. Due to the large capacity, the greatest CO2 savings are currently being achieved by shifting to waterways and rail. This way, it is possible to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 63 percent compared to direct trucks.

Mr Weddrin, what advantages does transporting heavy or oversized items via waterway have over truck transport?

SW: First of all, it opens possibilities that you don’t have with trucks. There are certain areas that you cannot reach using trucks only. Second of all, waterway transport is more efficient since you are able to combine large quantities of cargo on the same barge or vessel. This way the overall emissions per ton of cargo can be reduced significantly, as Mrs. Schmidt has already mentioned.

Picture: Kristiane Schmidt

Sustainability is often associated with higher costs. Is that also true for multimodal transport?

KS: The best way to tell whether sustainability is expensive or not is to look at the total costs. For example, in one project we calculated the actual cost of printed paper. In addition to rent, maintenance and electricity for the printer, there are also the costs for the material and the working hours of the employees. By reducing our paper consumption, we were able to save EUR 200,000 in 2019 compared to 2018. If you take such a comprehensive look at the costs in multimodal transport, it is simply cheaper than transport by truck and will remain so thanks to its sustainability.

Regarding project logistics, there are a lot of costs that can be minimised when switching transport means, but also digitising transport papers and more. Mr. Weddrin, what efforts has your division made to support this aspect of sustainability?

SW: Becoming a paper-free company over the last few years has definitely contributed to improving our environmental footprint and therefore lowering our monetary and non-monetary costs. However, we see the biggest reduction in costs when it comes to optimising supply chains. While switching to renewable and carbon-free fuels can have high monetary entry barriers, simply optimising the way customers transport their cargo can lower the monetary costs and the CO2 emissions of their transports at the time.

Mrs. Schmidt, the data in your study is based on containerised cargo, but are your findings also applicable to other cargo types?

KS: The calculation also works for other types of cargo. Barges don't get stuck in traffic on the way to the seaport and are far less restricted in size and weight than trucks. This means that even bulky goods can be transported fully assembled. Instead of laboriously transporting the project with several trucks, the barge offers an easier, CO2-saving solution.

What do you both think the future of logistics will look like, when it comes to sustainability?

KS: The future of logistics clearly lies in multimodal transport. The flow of goods will continue to increase and so will the number of transports, despite further increases in efficiency. Switching to alternatives to trucking is essential for both the transport capacities and the emissions. Combined transport can already save considerable amounts of CO2. The next step is decarbonisation, which we are already tackling. The distances that are covered by truck in the pre leg can already be done by electric truck. For this reason, four 44-ton e-trucks are already driving for us, two will follow in the next quarter. The overhead line (trucks attach to them like trains) is also an option, which is why we are participating in the testing on the A5 in Hessen with our El Fondo overhead line truck. Of course, this is also a good choice for the truck on long hauls. By switching to green electricity, the railway can quickly become a climate saver. Those routes without overhead lines can be bridged with hydrogen. But inland waterways are in no way inferior to these modes of transport. It is already possible to convert to electric motors today. The energy for the engine will still be provided by Euro 6 truck engines, but in the future, these can easily be exchanged for a hydrogen or methanol fuel cells, for example.

SW: While new types of sustainable fuels and carbon-free transports will be the long-term future of logistics, the near future is definitely defined by the options that are already available. The key is to use these wisely and efficiently. That’s why we as Rhenus Project Logistics strive to offer our customer the most efficient ways of transports for their projects.

Picture: Stephan Weddrin

What would you recommend to a company looking to reduce its emission for its project cargo transports?

KS: Think outside the box and consider trains and barges. Even today, this is not only the most climate-friendly solution, but together we can meet the Paris climate targets.

SW: Do not hesitate to start thinking of ways to improve your environmental footprint. There are ways that are already available to you today. If you need help with that, contact us. Together we can find a way to become more sustainable. Together with passion!