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Combined transport under pressure, shows Hupac 2023 financial report

The latest financial report of the Hupac Group demonstrates the challenges facing combined road-rail transport in Europe, showing a decline in demand and increasing pressure on rail infrastructure.

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In 2023, the Swiss railway company Hupac Group transported approximately 975,000 road consignments in combined transport, a decrease of approximately 130,000 consignments or 11.7% compared to the previous year.

All transport segments of Hupac’s pan-European network were affected by the negative development, albeit to varying degrees, the company said. In the core market of transalpine transport through Switzerland, Hupac recorded a comparatively moderate decline of 7.6% to 540,000 road consignments.

This negative development is mainly due to the declining demand for transport in Europe. The recessionary trend started in the autumn of 2022 in connection with the Ukraine and the energy crisis and affected large parts of the world economy in 2023.

To make matters worse, a number of factors are putting increasing pressure on the rail system, according to Hupac.

“First and foremost is the poor quality of the rail network, especially in Germany, due to neglected maintenance and inadequate national and international construction planning,” Hupac explains in its press release.

Capacity bottlenecks, delays and cancellations are the order of the day on many corridors. The serious accident in the Gotthard base tunnel in August was an additional exceptional factor. The complete closure of one of the two tunnel tubes until September 2024 significantly reduces the capacity of the line.

“Fortunately, the impact on rail freight transport is limited, as good solutions have been found together with SBB, ” says Michail Stahlhut, CEO of the Hupac Group. “We expect that the forthcoming necessary general overhaul of the German rail network will be organised in a market-compatible manner so as not to nip the politically desired turnaround in transport in the bud.”

The massive double-digit cost increases in the rail system are also counterproductive. High track and traction costs are out of all proportion to the service provided, according to the company.

“We must do everything we can to stop the trend of shifting traffic back from rail to road,” Stahlhut demands.

Instead, the system is being deprived of the support it urgently needs, especially in times of crisis. The current, unplanned significant reduction in track access charge subsidies in Germany is worsening the framework conditions for combined transport and, given the current margin situation, will inevitably lead to the additional costs being passed on to the market.

On the other hand, the subsidy policy of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport is viewed positively by the Swiss railway company, which adds in its press release that the support measures are stable and therefore have an anti-cyclical effect, which creates confidence and supports the market in the long term. This makes it all the more important to continue to support transalpine combined transport in the coming years.

“The planned focus on short-distance transalpine transport from southern Germany and Switzerland must not be at the expense of other segments,” demands Hans-Jörg Bertschi, chairman of the Board of Directors of Hupac.

Long-distance transport in particular is threatened by reverse modal shift due to the tense performance conditions and should continue to be supported.

Infrastructure measures to ensure capacity and stability on the north-south corridor are just as important as market-oriented financing.

“The Lauterbourg-Strasbourg-Basel and Antwerp-Metz-Basel routes are crucial for further progress in modal shift: they represent an alternative to the Rhine Valley railway and should be developed as a priority for freight transport, ” says Bertschi.

Smaller measures, such as the provision of parking sidings, can also provide some relief. Here, trains can wait to continue their journey in the event of disruptions, rather than being prevented from departing. Sidings are already in place near Dottikon and can be activated.

Despite the current difficult economic situation, Hupac is sticking to its strategy for the further development of climate-friendly combined transport. The European network is being adapted to market demand as the situation requires.

“In some cases, we have temporarily consolidated departures,” explains Alessandro Valenti, director of Shuttle Net, adding that other services have been expanded, such as the Benelux-Italy corridor with additional departures between Zeebrugge and Novara and Busto Arsizio and a new service to Piacenza from February 2024.

Another new development is an increase in frequency on the Rotterdam-Warsaw/Brwinów route.

In addition, Hupac is continuously working on factors that will strengthen the productivity and competitiveness of combined transport in the long term.

“Longer, heavier trains, efficient terminals, strengthening competition by promoting private railway companies and digital transformation are the most important keywords for the success of combined transport, ” says Stahlhut.

Major investments in terminals in Italy, Germany and Spain are also underway.

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