Many obstacles still block the development of rail freight between China and Europe, including a lack of capacity, the shortage of affordable reefer containers, and clean energy sources to power the generators for the refrigerated units.

The potential is certainly there to transport time- and temperature-sensitive goods to and from China, as lead times of between 13 and 19 days from China to Germany and 21 days to Spain are much shorter when compared to door-to-door times via sea transport, which can be up to 60 days. Lower costs and CO2 emissions compared to air transport have determined manufacturing companies in various high value-added sectors to shift towards rail transport services.

According to Henrik Christensen, Senior Consultant of Silk Route Rail, the prohibitive cost of rail freight reefer containers and the provision of clean energy to power generators across the 3000km journey are key to the growth in demand.

“Research into kinetic energy to power reefer containers is well underway and is being tested in Europe. This will provide the clean energy needed to replace diesel fuel, which is expensive on ultra-long journeys. The fuel is a heavy polluter, and in Europe, trains travel through densely populated urban areas,” said Christensen.

The long haul from Europe to China, some 11,000km, in freezing winter conditions and searing heat in the summer means that a robust and reliable energy source is essential. Kinetic energy is generated when the train is braking and energy is transferred from an alternator attached to the wheel and stored in batteries attached to the reefer genset.

Siros Sustainable Power System Energy has developed a system providing intelligent power systems for reefer transportation by efficiently converting train motion (kinetic energy) to electric energy. This system addresses operational, logistical, and environmental issues, enabling rail reefer transport.

From an operational standpoint, the Siros Sustainable Power System (SSPS) resolves the issues experienced with existing means of supplying power to a reefer such as a genset. The SSPS does not require fuel and refueling which contributes to a low life cycle cost and shorter payback. Eliminating the need for ongoing refueling resolves a key operational issue which is considered a nightmare for rail operators due to the costs, logistics and safety aspects involved with continuously having to refuel gensets.

The elimination of the fuel and refuelling is a key safety advantage since there is need for fuel tanks or tankers in and around the rail terminal that can constitute a safety hazard. In addition, storage of the SSPS does not require special consideration since the system does not have a fuel tank or fuel that during storage can pose a safety risk.

Meanwhile on the trucking front Emerald Technology Partners is preparing to test a new refrigeration system that it says will eliminate the use of fossil fuels and still maintain a cool operating environment for refrigerated loads.

Working with researchers at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Advanced Turbines and Energy Research, Emerald says it has developed a system that captures the kinetic energy produced by a trailer’s wheels as it rolls down the highway. That energy is converted into power that is used to operate the refrigeration unit, leaving the batteries to charge so that they are fully charged when the vehicle stops. Under an EU-sponsored ‘Fresh Food Corridors’ program, kinetic energy was used last year to power rail reefers moving fresh produce across Europe.

The project entailed moving five block trains, carrying 160 reefer containers and 4200 tonnes of fresh produce. The block trains travelled more than 6400km across Europe. The equivalent of 160 trucks would have been required to carry the same volume.

According to the European Union, more than two million reefer containers transit in and out of Europe every year, with an average growth of 5%.

In its Transcontinental Infrastructure 2030/2050 report, OECD indicated the maximum freight container volumes that could be handled along the rail route from Asia to Europe would probably be in the range of 0.5 to 1 million TEUs per annum. In comparison, current maritime volumes on Asia to Europe sea routes total around 20 million TEUs per annum.