Milan-Basel rail resumes, terminals work down backlog

Milan-Basel rail resumes, terminals work down backlog

The north-south rail corridor linking North Europe with ports on the Mediterranean is one of the busiest on the continent. Photo credit: Swissterminal.

Terminals are clearing the huge backlog of containers that built up at the key inland rail hub of Basel over the past two weeks following a deadly accident near the Italian city of Milan in late January, but it will be some time before all services return to normal.

A packed commuter train derailed just outside Milan, killing three people and shutting down the busy north-south corridor between Milan and Basel. The northbound line was only opened on Sunday, Feb. 11 but the southbound route will only be restored on Feb. 26.

Roman Mayer, CEO of Swissterminal, said despite the reopening of the line, there were still challenges facing freight terminals at the crucial hub of Basel in the border triangle of Switzerland, Germany, and France.

More than 8,500 containers were held up by the line closure, and Swissterminal has introduced reserve slots for truck drivers to deliver or pick up urgent export and import containers, while extending operating hours to handle what Mayer described as “extraordinary high traffic volume.”

He said the lack of rail freight connections led to a high volume of trucks converging at terminals in Basel, and the handling delays for trucks and barges as a consequence had continued. This situation was aggravated last week by the interim closure of navigation on the Rhine River in Basel because of high water.

For two weeks no trains entered or left the intermodal terminal at Melzo just outside Milan and the site of Contship Italia Group’s Rail Hub Milano. The line closure brought to a standstill three scheduled freight trains per day between Milan and La Spezia and two each day between Genoa and Milan.

Europe’s rail industry had its reputation tarnished by the two-month closure of the key north-south corridor at Rastatt six months ago, but when asked if the Milan-Basel closure further exposed the shortcomings rail faced on the continent, Mayer was skeptical.

“Of course the two incidents led to massive challenges for rail freight transport. However, generally speaking I am wondering if we should question our expectations,” he said. “Naturally, we expect everything to run smoothly in a digitalized world. However, in rail freight we operate with different specifications that do not meet today’s requirements anymore. We need to simplify rail freight immensely. This will take years and until then every company has to learn to manage risks and issues that come with the business.”

The Italian rail and logistics associations of Assologistica and Fer Cargo said in a statement that the Italian ports were trying to compete with those in Northern Europe and the delay in restoring the Milan-Basel line was hurting their competitiveness.

It was a point made earlier by Contship Italia Group that said the strategic value of rail freight transport in Italy was greatly undervalued. “This applies not only to the rail infrastructure itself — the minor environmental impact of rail transport and the greater competitiveness it brings to cargo transported to central European regions are often unconsidered aspects,” the intermodal operator said.

Contact Greg Knowler at greg.knowler@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.