The JOURNAL of COMMERCE ONLINE
Europe's top ports are scrambling to launch new container rail services in the coming weeks as the Port of Rotterdam prepares to inaugurate an multi-billion-dollar all-cargo rail line to Germany, Europe's largest freight market.
The $5 billion, 100-mile Betuwe line, to open early next year, will connect Rotterdam's container terminals and the German rail network, and help kick-start efforts by the Dutch port to consolidate its position as Europe's top box hub after trailing growth at its main rivals, Hamburg and Antwerp.
The line is expected to sharply boost rail's current 14-percent share of container traffic to and from Rotterdam, extending its lead over nearest rival Antwerp where rail accounts for less than 10 percent of cross-border box shipments.
Both ports trail Hamburg and Bremerhaven where rail has a much larger slice of the market due to the presence of Deutsche Bahn, Europe's biggest railroad.
Rotterdam has a number of projects underway that will greatly expand container volume. The Dutch parliament within weeks is set to give final approval to Maasvlakte 2, the 8.5 million TEUs-a-year container port to be developed on 1,000 hectares of land reclaimed from the North Sea at the Port of Rotterdam.
Rail has become increasingly attractive to ocean carriers, terminal operators and shippers as growing congestion on Europe's highway system is stretching road journey times and blunting the competitive advantage of trucking at a time when rail operators are benefiting from deregulation across the 25-nation European Union.
Antwerp has recently gained several new rail services -- mainly to Germany and Austria -- but they involve just a few thousand boxes a week and are only just keeping pace with the port's double-digit growth in traffic.
Antwerp is increasing pressure on the Netherlands to comply with an international arbitration ruling to re-open the "Iron Rhine" rail line to Duisburg, the German inland port and multimodal hub, that passes through Dutch territory.
The route was "temporarily" closed in the early 1990s and has never re-opened despite the ruling of international arbitrators, prompting accusations that the Dutch government is protecting Rotterdam.
British ports also are stepping up the transport of containers by rail following serious congestion in the peak shipping season two years ago that was partly blamed on road congestion. Network Rail, the state-owned company that owns and operates the tracks, has forecast that maritime container rail traffic will grow fourfold by 2015. It says around $1 billion is needed to improve the rail infrastructure, mainly heightening bridges and tunnels to accept the 9-foot, 6-inch containers that are gradually replacing older boxes that are a foot shorter.