Transporting plants and flowers by rail has a bright future, as long as the parties involved show the will and start to collaborate more. That was the general message of the well-attended 2014 Rail Seminar.
Photo: Director Gerard-Jan van den Herik: "We need rail transport, but there has to be a commitment to get intermodal transport on track."
Transporting plants and flowers by rail has a bright future, as long as the parties involved show the will and start to collaborate more. Such was the message on Wednesday, at the well-attended 2014 Rail Seminar for the floricultural industry, organised by the flower auction cooperative FloraHolland and the trade association for plant and flower wholesalers, VGB.
FloraHolland and the traders' association are collaborating well in rail transport, said the seminar chairman and manager of VGB Trade Services, Anton Bril. As logistical service providers and exporters noted, road transport is becoming increasingly difficult. In their view, traffic congestion, additional taxes, toll roads, increasing diesel prices and greater competition from low-wage countries are making it necessary to switch to other modes of transport. The Netherlands needs transportation alternatives to maintain its position on the international market, said Edwin Wenink of FloraHolland. Many foreign importers are now fetching their plants and flowers, in the Netherlands or elsewhere. "The real problem is that our exporters will soon lose control to foreign importers. Our cluster is under pressure and we may no longer remain the ideal hub, if we do not manage to cut our transportation costs."
Collaboration and commitment are required
Although the opportunities are clearly there, rail transport is developing less quickly than the pioneers would like to see. "If we do not switch to rail transport quickly, we shall lose market share", says an exporter. He and others urged parties in the industry to work together. Rail transport is often a matter of 'decelerating', for example by buying the goods one day earlier and planning the transportation accordingly. However, Michiel van Paasen of plant exporter Vida Verde argued that the viability of this option differs per customer group.
A larger volume will make rail transport more efficient and cost-effective. Freight needs to be combined in order to load the train as fully as possible, on both the outgoing and incoming routes. This requires collaboration between shippers, both within the floricultural industry and with other industries. Such collaboration is largely absent so far, noted director Sebastiaan Scholte of shipping company Jan de Rijk, who started organising rail transport to Milan four years ago with a group of traders. Of the promised freight volume, less than half was actually realised, he said; while the reliability of the transportation scheme is virtually 100%. "We are eager to transport more plants and flowers by train."
Herik Rail, part of Herik Cargo, also started a rail link to Milan in March. This company has its own trains and terminals that operate day and night. According to director Gerard-Jan van den Herik, freight is transported from Amsterdam to Milan, via the Alps, in 21 hours. "We need the train, but people need to show the commitment to get intermodal transportation on track."
Existing and new initiatives in Spain
While plants and flowers are regularly transported to Milan by train, new initiatives are emerging on the route to Spain. FloraHolland is consulting with other parties to use the trains bringing fruits and vegetables from Spain for the return shipment of plants and flowers. FloraHolland's Christo van der Meer says that the first train with floricultural products may be heading for Valencia in October.
Lamers Transport is already very much focused on Spain. This company brings trailers to the train, where it uncouples the lorry, and arranges for another lorry to carry the cargo further once the train reaches its destination. This so-called LorryRail arrangement has already shipped some 70 freights of flowers to Spain. Besides costing less, rail transport is also eco-friendlier due to less CO2 emissions. In practice, however, exporters and their customers are mainly interested in good, cheap and reliable transport, says the company's Anneke Lamers.
This project is supported with a BGS subsidy of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.