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Bottlenecks delaying road freight at EU’s internal borders

Traffic is backing up at internal border crossings in the EU with restrictions on the movement of people delaying road freight. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Freight trucks are being caught up in lengthy traffic jams at border crossings in Europe that have been closed to prevent the movement of people and limit the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). 

While the extreme measures to shut borders are aimed at the public and do not apply to freight transport, the knock-on effect has created 50-kilometer (31-mile) traffic jams on the Germany-Poland border, with lengthy bottlenecks also developing between France and Germany, and Hungary and Austria, according to shipment visibility provider Sixfold.

A forwarder told JOC.com that it was taking truckers up to 18 hours to clear the border from Germany into Poland, and that additional checkpoints were being opened by Polish authorities to ease the traffic flows.

The delays can be seen on a free and live map provided by Sixfold, the shipment visibility provider to Transporeon, Europe’s largest cloud-based supply chain network. On Thursday morning, queues of 30 to 50 km were detected at several points along the Germany-Poland border as tighter controls slowed the movement of traffic.

European Union leaders this week agreed to shut down the trading bloc’s external borders to all non-essential travel for the next 30 days in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many EU member states have also closed internal borders to restrict the movement of people.

Despite a European Commission (EC) order when the border controls were announced Monday that the control measures should not cause serious disruption to supply chains, essential services, and national economies, the measures continue to create widespread disruption to cargo flows.

The growing disruption prompted a call from the European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO) that the EC and member states give priority to maintaining the transport of cargo across borders and to ensure the goods and materials can be delivered to citizens throughout the EU.

“Europe’s ports are committed to continuing to support the flow of essential cargoes along with all other supply chain operators in the shipping, distribution, and haulage sectors,” said ESPO chairman Eamonn O’Reilly in a statement Wednesday. “These are extraordinary and challenging times for everybody, and it is essential that the supply chains, which allow essential goods and materials to move throughout Europe, continue unhindered to the greatest possible extent.”

Intermodal alternative

But as the border controls slow road freight, the gridlock is serving to highlight the benefits to shippers of switching from trucking to rail-dominated intermodal transport, according to Akos Ersek, chief policy advisor at the Brussels-based International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR). He explained the advantages of intermodal shipments in keeping cargo moving during the coronavirus shutdown.

“The benefit of combined transport is that you are taking cargo from an open transport system using public roads and delivering that cargo to a closed transport system such as rail or waterway,” Ersek told JOC.com. 

“In the closed system you have one locomotive driver for 50 truckloads of cargo on a train, or one skipper and two crew on a barge carrying a few hundred containers, or a few crew on a short-sea vessel carrying 1,000 TEU. There are a small number of potential virus carriers accompanying the transport.”

Ersek said although the cargo must be handed over at intermodal changing points, this involves a crane operator handling containers, terminal tractor driver pulling trailers off vessels, and truckers coming on site to load the cargo and drive it to the final destination.

“But the terminal staff and the truckers that do the first-mile or last-mile delivery are typically local workers that are not carrying the virus from one infected area to another. It is a very low exposure system of transport as opposed to sending a driver several hundred kilometers away to collect cargo and then driving back, stopping at roadsides and being exposed to contact with others along the way,” Ersek said.

However, even train transport is not immune to downstream effects of the coronavirus prevention measures on demand, pointed out Daniele Testi, head of marketing and communication at Contship Italia Group. He said the group has cut the frequency of its rail service from Milan from five round trips per week to four because of a slowdown in volume from Asia.

“We will adapt the frequency of train connections to the demand of cargo and we are asking shippers to support as much as possible the intermodal solution,” Testi told JOC.com. “However, to avoid backlogs and yard congestion at maritime terminals due to truck capacity, Contship is keeping our train services from our ports [La Spezia] to Melzo as frequent as possible.” Melzo is located in the province of Milan in the Lombardy region of Italy, which is considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe.

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