“A matter of common sense“
The Swisstrain was one of the first companies able to offer its customers alternative transport solutions following the disruption of the rail way track between the German cities of Rastatt and Baden-Baden. If you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a train operating company in a crisis like that, the following interview with Adriana Dittrich (AD), Head of Customer Service and Planning at Swissterminal AG, will be for you.
The closure of the Rhine valley rail tracks between Rastatt and Baden-Baden has been ongoing for three weeks and leaves train operators with enormous challenges. The Swisstrain was able to work out a contingency plan very quickly. How did you manage to do that?
AD: We learned about the incident on the same day it happened, on 12 August. I believe this was to our great advantage. We initiated an emergency meeting the same weekend and were able to discuss a contingency plan to keep up the transport of boxes in the best possible way despite the disruption. And we realized very soon that the shipment by barge was the most sensible solution to avoid a massive backlog.
But it must have been difficult to find suitable tonnage at such short notice?
AD: In a case like this, good contacts are obviously worth their weight in gold. This is why we were able to offer our clients a concrete solution relatively quickly. The costs associated are higher than under normal circumstances, but supply and demand determine the price. Unfortunately that applies in an emergency situation as well.
The services you offer usually run via the hub Neuss. Is this currently still the case?
AD: This is partly the case. We have routed some of the connections from Rotterdam and Antwerp via Neuss. We were able to offer some of the services from Rotterdam to Basel directly as well, which obviously saves time and our customers money. This option did not come without a challenge either though!
What exactly do you mean by that?
AD: To call at particular terminals, we had to become a recognized customer of the respective operating company. This entailed some administrative issues, which led to rather time-intensive procedures. And here as well good contacts paid off. In the end we are able to communicate via short and direct ways, because the partners in charge appreciated the urgency of the situation. This was a matter of common sense, and not of sticking to bureaucratic processes. Another issue was that we had to learn how to handle new computer programs from one day to the other. We learned a lot – even if it was learning by doing. And we were lucky to receive great support from our partners in the Netherlands.
What does the current situation look like?
AD: We are closely monitoring the situation at the terminals and decide week by week if additional barge departures from Neuss, or even Rotterdam, are necessary. The Swisstrain operates on an alternative route via Singen and we therefore managed to clear the container backlog that was built up during the past weeks. However, we are still dealing with a high degree of planning uncertainty. At the moment, it is not clear yet for how long the length restriction of 510 m due to construction works on this route too will remain in place. We hope that we will be able to get back to our usual length soon. And of course it would be even better if we were able to offer three round trips per week instead of just two as soon as possible.
What is your personal conclusion from the past weeks?
AD: It has been a very exhausting time, so much is clear. I have to admit though that we managed to pick up some positive things from it as well. I am sure that nobody would like to experience an event such as the disruption of one of the most important rail freight corridors in Germany ever again. But the cooperation amongst the team and with the management of our company was excellent, and together we found ways to handle this emergency situation in the best possible way. You will never be able to prevent events like this one – but you can learn how to deal with such situations and broaden your horizon bit by bit. And this is a very good feeling after all.