Why train beats the plane

A pilot of rail freight between Atlas Copco’s industrial vacuum production facility in Germany to its counterpart in China shows that rail transports balance costs, speed and sustainability better than air and ocean freight. It also ensures steady supply in times of pandemic restrictions.

Atlas Copco’s commitment to growing in the right way underpins the green logistics strategy of the Group’s Industrial Vacuum division. But there’s always a challenge to balance fast deliveries, transportation costs and minimal environmental impact. 

Leybold, a leading vacuum producer based in Cologne, Germany, sends heavy pumps weighing more than 150 kilograms, plus semi-finished parts like components and rotors, to Tianjin, China, for local production and distribution. Although air cargo transports are quickest, at ten days or less, the growing volumes to the Far East meant planes had become unsustainable, as Alexander Irchin, Logistics Manager, Atlas Copco Vacuum Technique, explains: 

“We wanted to move away from using air freight as rail transportation is more economical. We were also concerned about the high levels of CO2 emissions produced through air transportation.”

Finding a new way

Rail transportation.
China’s heavy investment in the New Silk Road infrastructure project across Asia, and in the German port of Duisburg, has been a game changer for rail travel between China and Europe. Leybold therefore decided to make a rail freight pilot.

The ‘Lighthouse project’ began in mid-2019, when 20 full container loads was sent by rail nearly 8,000 kilometres from Germany to China. Leybold now sends cargo in two trains per week to Tianjin. The flow is arranged so that the full container load goes first to the production facility, where the team unloads the relevant goods before dispatching a truck onwards to the customer center.

The benefits of train transports are clear. On this particular route, rail freight is 75% less costly than air freight, while the train emits 90% less carbon emissions. Compared to ocean freight, the train is 50% quicker as the distance by rail is 8,000 kilometres compared to more than 23,000 kilometres by ocean.

Securing the load

During the pilot, all Leybold’s transports were put in ocean freight packaging to avoid corrosion, while reducing the amount of plywood and completely eliminating the need for polyurethane foam. The transports were monitored via GPS tracker and the cargo’s temperature, humidity and load shocks were measured.

There can be significant temperature and humidity fluctuations, and load vibrations, but no significant damage was reported. This data prompted a decision to switch to rail for all but the heaviest of cargoes, which still go by container ship.

When distances are long, the planning time is important to ensure local market expectations can be met. Supply chain strategies focusing on planning delivery times, covering manufacturing and transport, are key to managing the right level of inventory for local markets and ‘just in time’ refilling.

Another Europe to China rail pilot is now underway in Edwards, also part of the Atlas Copco Vacuum Technique. Its distribution centre in Czech Slavonin has started to ship products to destinations in Shanghai and Qingdao, via Poland. In addition to saving time and money, this also brings a reduction in CO2 emissions and on top of that improves customer satisfaction.

“Our strategy to switch to rail is driven by environmental and cost optimization needs, but it is also based on a strong focus on customer requirements. We wanted to establish a method that would get products to them without undue delay. It also proved to be a wise choice from a flexibility point of view. When we initiated this project we had no idea a global pandemic would hit, with logistics constraints and restrictions to follow. By using alternative and reliable transport modes like rail we have been able to maintain supply and customer support also in this challenging time,” Alexander Irchin concludes.