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CoolRail, the first European rail service for fresh produce

CoolRail, the first European rail service for fresh produce, Credit: Sandra Zeillstra (FLD)
Credit: Sandra Zeillstra (FLD)



CoolRail is Europe’s first rail connection for fresh produce, serving south and north-western Europe. The initiative, started by Euro Pool System in May 2019 to ensure greater efficiency and sustainability in the fresh supply chain, consists of a direct train link between the ports of Valencia and Rotterdam, with dedicated trains three times a week in both directions, as well as a connecting line with Barcelona. Key account manager, Miguel Ángel Hidalgo, said, “The project actually began in 2012, when the Dutch retailer Albert Hein sought an alternative to road transport and Euro Pool System decided it was a strategic necessity to be certified as ‘Lean and Green’ and reach its goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 20% by 2025.” In fact, CoolRail goes far beyond meeting these objectives. International Flows Manager, Fred Lessing, said, “We collaborated on this project with the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. While we believed the reduction of CO2 emissions would be of the order of 30-50%, the results of a study estimate that saving will instead be of between 70% and 90%, depending on content of truck or train.” 

This prime example of a circular economy provides added value for CoolRail’s customers, who, besides Albert Hein, already number Bakker, Bollo and Primaflor, with great interest shown across the continent, which can be served by connecting truck services. CoolRail currently rents over 100 diesel-electric reefers to maintain the cold chain. As one train is the equivalent of 42 trucks, CoolRail will replace 13,000 trucks per year, thereby removing 15,000 tons of C02 from the supply chain and saving the energy produced by six wind turbines in a year. It will also reduce traffic congestion on Europe’s busy road network. A successful pilot study was carried out in Germany in 2016. 

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Produce speeds to Europe via sea-air transshipment in Miami

Crowley vice president Nelly Yunta is reported as saying the new service will be able to move perishable shipments to Europe in 4-5 days, allowing consumers to enjoy the fruit and vegetables at optimal freshness. There are hopes to later expand to more commodities and countries.

Fresh fruit and vegetables from Central America will reach Europe and Asia faster under a pioneer programme using Florida as an ocean-to-air transhipment hub.

The new alternative to sea-air transshipment through Dubai is being launched by Crowley Maritime Corp.and its customs brokerage subsidiary Customized Brokers.

According to American Shipper, the intermodal program – said to be the first known sea-air transshipment service in the US – aims to save shippers time and money and got a US government green light last month.

The pilot programme will see Customized Brokers coordinate the ocean shipment of fruit and vegetables from Guatemala and Honduras on Crowley vessels to Port Everglades, from where it will be trucked to Miami International Airport (MIA) for loading on KLM or Centurion Cargo freighters to Europe.

Crowley vice president Nelly Yunta is reported as saying the new service will be able to move perishable shipments to Europe in 4-5 days, allowing consumers to enjoy the fruit and vegetables at optimal freshness. There are hopes to later expand to more commodities and countries.

American Shipper reports Yunta said it took Florida-based Customized Brokers, in partnership with MIA officials, two years to get US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) approval because of concerns about potential pest infestation during the highway leg.

Measures introduced to address those concerns include packing pallets with insect-proof mesh and monitoring shipments from the farm until take-off in Miami, it said.

The process is said to be similar to one Customized Brokers uses for its air-land intermodal service for shipping asparagus from Peru through Miami and onto Canada by truck.

Peruvian asparagus service image above:
Image of ship at top:

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Air France-KLM-Martinair Cargo expects continued growth in perishables transport

Air France-KLM-Martinair Cargo and its partners serve the main freight corridors for perishables between Schiphol and perishable exporting countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, South America and Kenya.

As part of its constant bid to improve its sustainability, Air France-KLM-Martinair Cargo is experimenting with temperature control elements throughout the supply chain. Perishables director Pieter Fopma said trials have been carried out on routes from South Africa and Latin America.

“Experiments have been conducted in close cooperation with forwarders and shippers, for instance on the Nairobi-Amsterdam route: together with a cool chain consultancy firm, using their independent market-leading quality assessment services.”

“We are currently in the process of assessing, benchmarking and optimising the integral flower supply chain from farm to final customer with the aim of reducing time temperature exposure in degree hours. Furthermore, we work very closely with Wageningen University, Food Quality Management Logistics/Innovation, to support us on cool chain improvement, for example on the trade lanes for sensitive berries,” he said.

Air France-KLM-Martinair Cargo and its partners serve the main freight corridors for perishables between Schiphol and perishable exporting countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, South America and Kenya. “Given the strategic position of Schiphol we are one of the main capacity providers (both on lower and on main deck) to the worldwide perishable industry, with a steady worldwide market share,” Fopma told ED. “Our full freighters (currently a mix of MD11’s, B747-400 F’s and B777 F’s) can carry 80-100 tons of perishables and we re-export via Amsterdam-Schiphol, primarily to various European destinations, Russia, China and North America.”

Challenging targets set by perishables forwarders for 2016

“As there has been an increase in demand for perishable produce globally, this has led to producing countries expanding land and diversifying products. In addition, the buyer’s trend is to buy locally grown and organic. The popularity of berries’ family produce, has led to countries like Peru starting to produce blueberries some time ago. We also see the production of vegetables in various countries is further improving and increasing like for example the Mexican bell peppers. African produce is also developing rapidly, which will have consequences for exports to the Middle-East in the long run,” Fopma said.

“Now that the socio-economic situation globally is improving, we are hopeful that the economy will further improve as well. With the health trends in the perishable markets that we have already seen, we are optimistic that we will continue to see growth worldwide. Although we see that some markets of interest are changing, we continue to receive requests from local specialised forwarders and large global forwarders, some of which have further strengthened their vertical organisation for perishables and have set very challenging targets for 2016 and the years to come.”

Increased quality demands

“Given the nature of the product as being very sensitive to temperature deviations and throughput time, customers become increasingly quality conscious and are increasingly demanding more elaborate and stringent cool chain requirements throughout the cool chain. Furthermore, we have to factor in inherent process variations due to different aircraft, product varieties and origins. Each station has different ‘context factors’, such as climate, distance from the runway to the warehouses amongst others, so these must be considered. This is compounded by increasing demand from the industry for standardisation of quality, meaning variability needs to be minimised as far as possible,” Fopma said.

“In this process, tripartite communication is essential with both forwarders and shippers. They are a source of information and tell us about their needs, which gives us a better understanding of the desired high quality product we need to deliver. The input leads to better quality onboard the plane, a reliable and sustainable network and the control of the complete cool chain. In summary, transporting perishables requires dedication, expertise and most of all a reliable product: In that sense we really stand out from our competition and we have a reputation to maintain,” he said.

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How to tackle the risks in perishables transport

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Produce quality more important than carriage factors for good shelf-life.

Cooling and carriage factors clearly are not the only aspects that can lead to waste. The weather during cultivation, crop husbandry, grade at harvest, post-harvest handling, the type of packaging and pre-cooling all play their own role in the quality and storability of the product. As Alex Schenz put it at the 6th Cool Logistics Conference, “The container is not a hospital, if you put garbage in, you get garbage out.”

Yet in terms of carriage factors, there are many aspects to control. Humidity management can prevent mold or wet cartons, as Leo Lukasse, a climate control specialist from Wageningen University, highlighted at the conference.

Another point of concern are periods without power during transportation. German expert in ocean transport and reefer containers Yves Wild said power-off periods seem to be increasing because operations take more time due to reefers getting larger and larger. A connected reefer would be able to supply real-time information on the situation, thus reducing cargo loss and costs.

Michael Dempsey, sales and marketing vice president at WAM Technologies in the US, said such technology already exists but various parties throughout the chain are reluctant to invest in it as they would not be the only party to benefit and it still is unclear who would own the data collected. Yet a lot is to be gained from connectivity – visibility, monitoring, compliance and security – which would lead to a return on investment.

Reefer container trade: bright spots and financial challenges

Although it seems clear that the reefer containers are definitively taking the lead over conventional reefer shipping where perishable transportation is concerned, that does not mean the industry is not facing challenges.

As Thomas Eskesen, global head of refrigerated business with Maersk Line, showed during his presentation at the conference, carrier results have not been sustainable for a long time. They dropped below the level of generally accepted margins since the beginning of 2011 and have remained there ever since, even dipping into the negative figures for prolonged periods.

This has left the industry with serious financial challenges. At the same time, a compound annual growth rate (cagr) for reefer containers of 6.5% is reported with prospects for further growth. Where the reefer container share was 72.3% in 2013, it is predicted to reach 79.8% in 2018, according to Alexis Michel, CMA CGM’s senior vice president of logistics and reefers. Yet he, too, expressed concerns about profitability versus investment in the reefer container fleet and the need for better operating margins.

Growth in perishables trade

However, according to figures from the Seabury Group, there are bright spots on the horizon, too. A shift in transportation is noticeable, with a move away from air towards ocean trade, particularly in containers. Indeed two thirds of the global perishables’ ocean volume is in containers. In Europe and Africa in particular, there seems to be more room for further growth in containers, the Seabury Group believes. Volume-wise, it is the short distance trade that is the most significant and it is also this that is seeing the fastest growth. A compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.8% is forecast for trade in perishables between 2013-2018. The Asian Pacific region, with an expected CAGR of 6%, is the main driver of growth.

Increased demand for value–services

Both Maersk and CMA-CGM have also observed that reefer customers are demanding increased service. This had lead Maersk to introduce a vast toolbox to both improve service and lower costs. In the toolbox, services such as network rationalisation, speed equalisation and slow steaming, inland optimisation and much more can be found. The end result should be lower network costs, improved products and lower CO2 emissions. What it should not lead to is one single service for all customers. Maersk Line will continue to differentiate when it comes to sales experience, the booking process, service levels and customer service. CMA-CGM observes that the seaborne mode split leads container carriers to higher service level criteria where compensation of longer transit times, the ensuring of fumigation and logistic schemes, such as open sea exchange, are concerned. In all of these processes, data will be a key priority. Indeed, as Maersk points out, data will be the future value driver. 


This is an abbreviated version of an article which appeared on p62 of edition 135 of Eurofresh Distribution magazine. Read the full article for free here.