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Doctoral research reveals: hub-and-spoke more efficient than point-to-point in current situation

Delft University Of Technology : 27 November, 2006  (Technical Article)
The latest generation of hub terminals backed up by a transport system providing perfect support comes out top in this doctoral study. Unfortunately it remains difficult at the moment to run this kind of system at a profit. In order for the latest generation of hub terminals to be used optimally, rail freight transport needs a chain director.
These are the conclusions drawn by Yvonne Bontekoning in her doctoral research, in which she compares the performance of various shunting and transhipment techniques.

The most common model for intermodal rail transport is the point-to-point model. Trucks deliver their containers to the terminal and cranes transfer the containers onto the trains. Containers with the same destination are loaded onto the same train. These then depart for the next terminal, where the next day everything is once again loaded onto trucks for the rest of the journey. This serves to combine the advantages of road transport and rail transport, but the point-to-point model is suitable only for large quantities of freight.

Other conditions apply to smaller-scale transport, such as that involving perishable goods or goods which must reach the destination quickly for other reasons. According to Bontekoning the hub-and-spoke network, or wheelbarrow model, should be re-established for such transport types.

In the hub-and-spoke model the containers with different destinations are all loaded onto one train at the start terminal. On arriving at the hub they are redistributed for their various final destinations. This has major advantages in comparison to point-to-point: advantage of scale, an increase in the number of business relations for small-scale transport and a higher frequency of transport services per relation.

Traditionally speaking the trains are shunted at the hubs, which is a time-consuming task.

The alternative to shunting wagons with the containers is transhipment of the containers themselves. The latest generation of hub terminals is very fast, provided with a supporting transport system, fully robotized and expensive, but allows rapid transhipment at the hubs of the hub-and-spoke networks. This puts an end to the time-consuming process of shunting.

There is only one ‘but’: in order for this new hub generation to operate profitably, trains must arrive in groups with the ‘group members’ separated by just a few minutes. Only then can containers be switched quickly from train to train and optimum use can be made of the latest hub innovations. In day-to-day reality, however, such optimum conditions are almost impossible to achieve.

According to Bontekoning, freight transport by rail can in technical terms play a greater role than is now the case, as long as planning and organisation are given priority. One of the recommendations for follow-up research is thus to investigate the causes of, and solutions to, poor planning and management of the rail network.
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