Expertise in temperature-controlled pharmaceutical transport by rail leads to new export opportunities for the food industry

Expertise in temperature-controlled pharmaceutical transport by rail leads to new export opportunities for the food industry

In 2014, many companies were presented with a significant disappointment. In response to the annexation of Crimea, the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia that year. These were in turn met by Russia with a number of embargoes, including on the export of food products to and through Russia. Many companies saw their export opportunities go up in smoke. “So we just had to find a solution. And that’s where our expertise came in,” says Jef Molenaers, Global Industry Lead. “More specifically, our experience with temperature-controlled pharmaceutical transport by rail formed the basis for a new solution.”

Indeed, since recently, temperature-controlled embargoed goods (such as dairy products, fish, salt, fresh and frozen pork and beef, poultry, vegetables, fruits and nuts, etc.) can once again be transported through Russia by rail. A great opportunity for companies that want to increase their export activities to China and other countries, and in challenging times like these, it is more than welcome. “It is nice to see that other industries can also benefit from the experience we have gained within our pharmaceutical activities,” explains Jef Molenaers.

Filling the gap

“In 2016 we began investigating the possibilities for a temperature-controlled rail solution from Europe to China. In 2017 we were the first player on the market to offer this service. Rail transport nicely fills the gap between air freight and sea freight: it is significantly cheaper and more environmentally friendly than flying, while also being much faster than waterborne transport. While the turnaround time from door to door can be up to 3 months by water, it is only 21 days by rail.”

It was a good, feasible solution in theory, but the technical side of things should be realised too. How can the specialised knowledge and service offered on sites be translated into a rail solution? “For a start, a lot of pharmaceutical products are extremely temperature-sensitive. And it’s certainly not easy to ensure a constant temperature when you encounter extreme weather conditions along the way. For example, it can freeze down to -45°C, but the apparent temperature for moving objects can drop as low as -60°C.”

Monitoring day and night

As with every new project, the starting point was understanding what our customers needed. We joined our expertise with that of a number of pharmaceutical players who, just like us, considered this sustainable transport solution a recipe for success. “We worked closely together to investigate to what extent our insulation, fuel, heating, cooling and equipment could withstand the weather conditions during the journey. Whenever necessary, we made adjustments. And, not unimportantly, we developed a solution for remote monitoring of the containers, day and night. Our customers can count on a resolute escalation procedure including interventions, in case of emergencies throughout the entire process. All coordinated by our control tower. Even the cooling and heating can be controlled from here.”

From China to Europe

Since we launched the rail solution in 2017, it is becoming increasingly popular. “The pharmaceutical industry is by nature rather hesitant when it comes to innovation. A lot of companies were waiting to see what it would be like when we started with this rail solution towards China. However, that tide has turned, and building on the success of rail transport to China, we are also expanding our intermodal options closer to home. At the moment it mainly concerns routes from the Benelux to Italy, Romania and Poland. One unexpected added value, is that rail transport can always stay operative, even in a period of crisis. And at this point in time, it can create new export opportunities for the food industry too.”

Do you have any questions about our solutions for sustainable rail transport within Europe or to China? Jef Molenaers will be glad to assist you: