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Flexiwaggon in the frame for intermodal

There have never been any ‘rolling motorway’ intermodal services in Scandinavia, but this could change as the Swedish-designed Flexiwaggon is attracting interest there, writes Vincent Champion.

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Flexiwaggon as part of a passenger train service
Flexiwaggon as part of a passenger train service

Flexiwaggon was first developed more than 10 years ago (WorldCargo News, February 2007, p16). In 2009, the design was supported by an innovation grant worth SEK11M (€1.5M at current exchange rates) from the Swedish Energy Agency.


Flexiwaggon is not a classic, drivethrough ‘rolling motorway’ (RoLa) tool such as used for transalpine (RAlpin) and Channel Tunnel fixed-link truck crossings. It is much more flexible, as it can be used in mixed traffic with passenger services, both short-haul and longhaul, as well as in dedicated block trains.

 

The Flexiwaggon truck loading technique, based on a slewing load bed above the wagon floor, is similar in principle to the Modalohr wagons used by VIIA. However, the Flexiwaggon load bed is long enough to take the whole truck. With Modalohr, a separate swing platform is needed for the road tractor if it is to be shipped with the trailer.


Jan Eriksson, the inventor of Flexiwaggon and the company’s CEO, explained that Flexiwaggon has the flexibility to be operated in different kinds of services, and obviates the need for VIIAtype terminals where road trucks decouple and trailers are marshalled and (un)loaded by dedicated terminal tractors.

 

Key difference


The key difference between transalpine/Eurotunnel RoLa services and techniques such as VIIA, Flexiwaggon and CargoBeamer is that the former facilitate long-haul road freight, and the latter are alternatives to it. As such, they compete against lo-lo intermodal, but have a much broader market potential, since they cater for non-liftable road trailers, which make up around 90% of the European road trailer market.

 

Lo-lo intermodal can also cater for non-craneable trailers. For example, TX Logistik (and now CFL - see box story, p42) provides Nikrasa, which is similar to the so-called baskets for non-craneable trailers that first appeared in Hungary in the 1990s. In addition, the CargoBeamer drive-through pallet for trucks is dual-purpose. It can be slid transversally with the trailer onto the CargoBeamer wagon bed, or lifted aboard the wagon. All these baskets or cradles have DIN lifting pockets exactly the same as those built into the frame of a piggyback trailer. However, the trailers still have to be handled through regular lo-lo intermodal terminals.

 

SEK5 per km

 

Transport costs using Flexiwaggon have recently been estimated at just SEK5 per km, says Eriksson, about half the costs of road transport. Interest has been expressed by leading food retailer ICA Sverige AB and by Green Cargo, Sweden’s biggest rail freight company.

 

However, the first commercial customer for Flexiwaggon is TXG Transportation, part of the Swedish TXG Group focused on rail-based logistics in Scandinavia and overseas. In Australia, the company is already developing a hybrid rail bogie for use on passenger railcars and freight cars, and a new type of generator for use on freight trains. Its operations base in Hallsberg in central Sweden boasts the world’s most modern and fastest rail wheel machining workshop.

 

TXG has ordered one Flexiwaggon for use at the Hallsberg depot, and it will be delivered in September this year. But that could just be the start. The order included an option for another 120 units, of which 25 (a train set) in 2019.


TXG’s thinking about Flexiwaggon is based on system traffic in block trains and is somewhat different from the original thinking of Flexiwaggon AB itself, although block trains were always part of Flexiwaggon’s long-term goals, of course.


Dispersibility

 

The point stressed by Eriksson is that Flexiwaggon does not require a huge financial commitment to start taking advantage of the technology. With a slewing load bed that can load/unload a 4mhigh truck under overhead catenaries, a Flexiwaggon needs no terminal infrastructure. It can, in theory, be slotted into a passenger train as a ‘single wagon’ shipment – the train could make a line-side stop to, say, unload one truck, and take on another (or a bus or emergency vehicle).


Alternatively, one or two Flexiwaggons could be added to a passenger train for trucks to make a point-to-point journey between two centres much faster than they could travel over the road.


In these two scenarios, many Flexiwaggons could be supplied to many small operators all over Sweden, with none of them having to make a really big commitment and having to have aggregation for it to work.


The slewing load bed is now equipped with crawler tracks, which provide level conditions for (un)loading, even on unmade ground or in snowy or icy conditions. The truck driver himself can activate all ramp and load bed activities at the press of a button or with an access card. The card prevents unauthorised activation of the (un)loading sequence. Cycle time is just seven to eight minutes.


The Flexiwaggon project at TXG is headed up by Klaus Knudsen, an engineer with a background in automotive. Speaking to WorldCargo News, he said that, while it has been widely reported that his company has an option for 120 Flexiwaggons, if it is to proceed, it will eventually require many more than that.

 

“The trains would need to cover around 1,400 km in Sweden and Norway running 18 hours a day,” he said, adding that a high “cabin factor” (utilisation rate) would be needed to offset the high fixed cost of the Flexiwaggons and the train operating costs.


In Sweden, he explained, allowable train lengths are 630m or 750m according to route, so the train sets would be made up of 23 or 27 Flexiwaggons.

 

“We are confident that we can cut the costs for the truck operator by more than 50% compared to long-distance trucking, but we need to persuade the industry to operate by our schedules and build up trust to ensure regular, repeat business.” A point here is that the customer base is not big trailer operators such as DFDS, DSV Road or DB Schenker, but the many trucking firms that contract their haulage services to them.


A change in mindset is needed, since many truckers see their long-haul activities as a way of life. On the other hand, the demographics are changing. Although there are now many foreign truck drivers in Sweden, there is a growing driver shortage issue, as elsewhere in Europe.

 

The latest generation wagon (NG Flexiwaggon) is simpler than the earlier models and has fewer components, to reduce maintenance costs and improve uptimes and reliability. Knudsen believes that further changes can be made in this direction and has told Flexiwaggon that the train has to compete with lo-lo intermodal trailer services, which of course use simpler and lighter wagons.


It is understood that the price for a Flexiwaggon is around SEK2.5M (€237,000), but this would come down with serial production and further design simplifications.

 

“It is very easy to work out the emissions savings and the benefits for society by taking trucks off the road,” said Knudsen, “particularly in countries like Norway and Sweden where the rail network is electrified and electricity is generated from clean renewables and nuclear.” He believes that governments have to get on board and provide real incentives for promoting modal shift.

If one looks at VIIA, for examFlexiwaggons in a dedicated freight block train
If one looks at VIIA, for examFlexiwaggons in a dedicated freight block train

Truck, or not?

 

The modus operandi for TXG has not been finalised. While the ‘one or two off’ ideas of Flexiwaggon AB are aimed at accompanied transports, it is worth asking whether the road tractors and drivers need to travel with longhaul block trains?

 

If one looks at VIIA, for example, the original Aiton-Orbassano transalpine service catered for accompanied shipments (with, as noted above, the trucks on a separate platform), but even this short-haul service gradually moved mainly to unaccompanied, as hauliers got used to the idea of exchanging trailers with other hauliers.


The long-haul VIIA services are 100% unaccompanied. This saves 6t tractor deadweight per trailer, but the terminals are required to have some kind of infrastructure, as well as a fleet of terminal tractors, to load and unload the trailers, marshal them and take them to the handover points for the local road haulage companies to carry out ‘last mile’ collections and deliveries.


RoLa services obviously have a much higher deadload in total train trailing weight than unaccompanied lo-lo intermodal. If the tractor head is removed from the rail shipment, the weight disadvantage of horizontal access is minimised. The lighter wagon loads may also mean lower tariffs from the rail track authorities.

Radical thinking


However, in this regard, Knudsen makes a very interesting point. Electric trucks are the way forward, and this is where all the R&D funds of truck builders are concentrated. All sorts of ideas have been put forward to sustain long-haul electric trucks, but if the long-haul is covered by train, the trucks can plug into the electric power already available on the Flexiwaggon.


Flexiwaggon AB provided onboard power at an early stage, to ensure that reefer trucks or trucks with cargo that required heating could use the service. With the new type of generator that TXG is developing, redundant energy could be used to recharge the truck’s batteries while it is on the train. A truck would then require smaller and less expensive battery packs.

 

Fast turnaround


Another key point is that accompanied transport makes for much lower terminal dwell times and, depending on network availability, more train paths. There is a clear analogy here with accompanied, as opposed to unaccompanied, ferry services.


Knudsen believes that Flexiwaggon can be competitive at a haulage distance of just 150 km, and hold its own against lo-lo intermodal up to 1,800 km. “If Flexiwaggon is used to move trucks from a ferry terminal, the distance can be much lower, 20-100 km,” he said. “Everything depends on the loading and unloading time. With Flexiwaggon, it’s just seven minutes.”

 

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