If you drive on the Autobahn at night, you are bound to come across them again and again: trucks from parcel service providers, whether DHL or DPD. The climate balance of the combustion giants is poor. Is there an alternative?

In order to keep air pollution as low as possible when transporting the bulk of the shipment, Germany’s parcel industry is relying more on rail than before.

After the market leader Deutsche Post DHL increased its use of freight trains last year, a project by competitor DPD began on Tuesday night. Freight trains run between Duisburg and Hamburg, one in each direction and night.

The amount of parcels is initially small, there are only two containers from DPD on the trains, the other containers – called “swap bridges” – are from other companies, such as freight forwarders. In three months, however, DPD wants to expand the project and add more routes. By the end of 2023, five percent of national DPD freight traffic should go by rail.

Long distances in focus

The DPD manager responsible for network planning, Anke Förster, sees the project as a further step in terms of climate protection. DPD sometimes uses electric vans and cargo bikes for deliveries in order to be responsible for as little air pollution as possible. With the freight trains, DPD is now focusing on the so-called main leg – i.e. the long distance that is actually covered by trucks on the motorway. These trucks still have an internal combustion engine, so the CO2 balance is bad on this part of the parcel route.

Shifting parcels to rail improves the climate balance: According to the service provider Kombiverkehr, which arranges freight train capacities for Deutsche Bahn, the CO2 emissions for transporting a container are more than 80 percent lower than for transport with a truck. The fact that it is not 100 percent is due to the fact that the freight trains use an electricity mix that not only comes from renewables, but also from coal combustion.

A decade ago, DPD tried a similar project, but stopped it after a good year. “Back then, social awareness of climate protection was not as pronounced as it is today,” says DPD logistics manager Förster. Not only the price and the transit time – i.e. the time to delivery – are now important to customers, but also sustainability. In addition, the range of freight train capacities has become better and more flexible.

From the depot to the train station

The DPD containers are loaded in Duisburg or Hamburg in the evening and sent off on the 400-kilometre route. Early in the morning they are on schedule at the destination station. According to Förster, the use of rail is logistically much more complex. “Trucks normally drive from one depot to the other depot via the motorway, and they can be flexibly rescheduled,” says the manager. With rail transport, however, trucks drive in the evening from the depot to the loading station, where the containers are heaved onto the trains. In the morning, other trucks pick up the containers at the destination station and drive them to another depot. Reliability is very important here, says Förster. If the freight train arrives late, it puts a lot of pressure on the delivery logistics.

The major competitor from Bonn, Deutsche Post DHL, is dealing with other quantities. The Bonn group uses entire trains and not just a few containers. Roughly speaking, a freight train has 70 containers. According to Deutsche Post, between 50 and 70 freight trains transport DHL packages in Germany on several routes every week.

“As the market leader in green logistics, we already have significantly lower CO2 emissions per parcel than our competitors,” says Post board member Tobias Meyer. The DHL freight trains only use energy from renewable sources. Last year DHL increased the proportion of parcels transported by rail on the main leg from two to six percent.

What is missing

In the future, it should even be 20 percent – provided the framework conditions improve. “For example, we need faster wagons again for light freight transport, better availability of routes through an expansion of the infrastructure and simplified procedures for the construction or upgrading of rail connections and loading terminals,” says Post Board Member Meyer.

Industry experts see the inclusion of rail in parcel transport as positive. “This is a relevant building block for reducing CO2 emissions,” says Kai-Oliver Schocke from the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences.

However, the proportion of parcels by rail should not be too high, says the logistics professor. On the one hand, many depots are so far away from rail loading points that rail transport is not worthwhile – delivery and collection would take too long and there would be no benefit in terms of climate protection if the truck route from the rails to the depot was long. Ultimately, Deutsche Bahn was asked to expand the network of freight train routes.

The logistics company Hermes does not send parcels on freight trains. There are “only a few offers on the rails that meet our needs,” says a company spokeswoman. Viewed across the entire process chain, rail transport is much more expensive than truck transport. In addition, it is “contrary to customer wishes” that the transit times on the rails are longer. However, the spokeswoman also says that the environmental advantage of rail is “clear” – in principle one is open to the subject.

When trains are late

The start was a bit bumpy. The freight train left Hamburg on Monday evening with a delay of one hour and on Tuesday morning the containers were ready for collection in Duisburg one and a half hours later than planned, according to a DPD spokeswoman. The company spokeswoman emphasizes that the “performance promise”, according to which DPD parcels usually reach the recipient after one to two days, is kept despite this delay.