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Air cargo trial will pioneer hub-and-spoke operation

01 Aug 2006

Andrew Sharp, Director General of the International Air-Rail Organisation, looks at plans to operate high speed freight services to and from Leipzig/Halle airport

WITH A NEW European hub taking shape at Leipzig/Halle airport for opening in 2007, to replace its existing Brussels operation, Deutsche Post subsidiary DHL is redesigning its feeder network. This will take the form of a hub-and-spoke operation to improve the efficiency of its collection and delivery system, and DHL is looking at the potential to use rail on those routes where journey times are around 3 h or less.

Today most short-haul air cargo - either domestic or connecting with inter-continental flights - is moved by air freighter or by road. In practice, at least in western Europe, much of it never sees the inside of a plane.

DHL believes the best prospects for rail are the spokes radiating from Leipzig/Halle to Frankfurt, M??nchen, N??rnberg, Hamburg, the Ruhr and Kassel, which is one of Germany's most important logistics centres. Hamburg can be reached in 2 h 56 min, and DHL is preparing to launch a trial service on this route by early 2008.

Each spoke would be served by a number of trains shuttling between the different hubs throughout the day. For example, five trains might serve Frankfurt, with the last one leaving around 21:00 to offer a late cut-off time. Pending construction of the high speed line around Erfurt, the best timing to Leipzig-Halle is estimated at 3 h 10 min.

According to DHL, the ideal train would be pressure-sealed to permit high speed operation, with the potential for air-conditioning and refrigeration. With a low roller-bed floor, it would be designed for loading and unloading on both sides. The vehicles must be wide enough to accommodate conventional pallets, airline Unit Load Devices and 747 Main-Deck Containers.

DHL's conceptual design for the rail vehicles incorporates a high-floor area over the bogies to accommodate a 10ft ULD, and a central area 800 mm above rail level which could accept MDCs.

As any investment in dedicated trainsets would hinge on the results of the initial trials, various alternatives have been investigated. One option was to convert ICE-1 trainsets, but cutting doors in the sides would destroy their structural integrity. The next-best option is to use redundant inter-city coaches fitted with large side doors. These are not ideal, but would work for the trial.

Each rake will be formed with 16 coaches and an electric loco at each end. There will be two driving trailers in the centre, so that the trains can be split to serve two destinations.

Hub takes shape

The buildings for the DHL airfreight hub are due to be complete by the end of 2007. The adjacent rail terminal will be served by a siding off the Leipzig - Schkeuditz - Halle line which runs south of the airport. Beyond the DHL site, this siding will also serve the airport fuel depot, offering diversity of supply.

The rail terminal is being designed to permit rapid loading and unloading, in order to achieve the required throughput in the short timeframe set by DHL. DB is building the infrastructure, with 75% of the cost coming from EU structural funds and the rest from the airport owner, the Land of Sachsen.

There will be two loading tracks for the cargo trains and a through line. There will be stabling space for four more trains, so that all six sets needed for the trial can be at the airport simultaneously.

Each of the two loading tracks will be paralleled by two other tracks carrying rail-borne loading and unloading equipment. These will be scissors-lift units able to cope with any floor height, and designed to retract to give the necessary 1m clearance when trains are arriving or departing (Fig 1). At the peak, there could be two scissors-lifts for each of the 16 coaches, working one on each side of the train. It is forecast that the minimum time needed to unload and reload a train would be just 16 min 30 sec.

The scissors-lifts will use aviation-standard roller-bed technology; the trains may have automated roller-bed floors. The lifts will transfer the containers to a temporary storage area, from where they will be moved to the air terminal on trailers (dollies). They would go to a sorting area or, if already sorted by flight, directly to the aircraft.

In the past flatbed lorries have been used to shuttle the containers around, but their platforms are too high; they require too much lifting and lowering, which raises the costs. High speed low-floor dollies are being developed, and a prototype capable of 50 km/h is under construction for trials.

There are still a number of issues to be resolved before the service can be launched. For example, carriage of dangerous goods on DB's high speed network is subject to restrictions: they cannot be in a tunnel at the same time as a passenger train. However, since the goods would be in a container permitted to travel by air, they should be safe enough! Similar issues drive the need for two locos - it is partly a fear of a failure blocking a high speed line, and partly the fact that these lines are steeply graded and need a higher power-to-weight ratio.

DHL has also been investigating the scope for rail feeder services to non-German destinations. Northern Italy would be a valuable destination but the 11 h 30 min rail journey time would be far too long. DHL already moves air cargo by lorry between Leipzig/Halle and Praha, but again the rail service would be too slow because of the relatively poor track and the delay for border formalities.

In addition to the DHL facility in the southeast of the airport, a second freight spur is under construction at the southwest end. This will use the formation of a disused siding, lifted apart from the junction itself. The road layout on that side of the airport has been designed so that the line can be re-activated when there is demand.

  • Picture caption: The principal warehouse and sorting centre for the new DHL air cargo hub at Leipzig-Halle Airport was approaching completion on July 9, at which point construction of the aircraft servicing hangar was getting underway
  • Picture caption: A substantial retaining wall has been built alongside the airport approach road to support the air-rail interchange facility close to the DHL warehouse Photos:Frank Eritt
  • Picture caption: Fig 1. Scissors-lift loading units operating on each side of the vehicle will be able to unload and reload a 16-coach train in little more than 15 min