Supply chains in Europe faced a number of challenges throughout 2022, with disruptions and bottlenecks impacting services across the continent. In 2023, logistics operations – including European inland routes – will continue to be tested.

Such tests can lead to critical consequences, particularly for temperature-sensitive cargo such as fruits and vegetables. Delays in the supply chain or failure to maintain correct temperatures can potentially spoil products and ultimately result in financial losses. Therefore, speed is of paramount importance in the reefer market, but also available alternative solutions to circumvent bottlenecks.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, Europe is a large and mature market with stable demand for year-round availability. Due to the climatic range, the continent is both a consumption and a production area.

reefer at port

Spain is by far Europe's leading producer and exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables, accounting for 40.1% of fruit production and 17.3% of vegetable production (CBI). Naturally, the resulting flow of goods into the rest of Europe leads to great amounts of truck and overland transport. In fact, according to Eurostat, more than 1,400 temperature-controlled trucks cross the Spanish border daily on their way to Europe. If both dry and refrigerated transports are considered, the figure is closer to 10,000.

Goods flowing at such high numbers means any disruption puts a strain on supply chains – and the current state of the European market means challenges are coming from a multitude of factors. Rapidly rising food, gas and energy prices have driven inflation to a 40-year high and had a major impact on logistics globally, but looking more closely at the route from Spain to the UK brings several other issues into account.

European market conditions contributing to bottlenecks

Europe has been struggling with a shortage of truck drivers for some time, and Spain has been particularly impacted by the situation. Overall, the need for drivers in Spain will exceed 15,000 in the coming years (El Pais), while the capacity of the road network is brought to its limit by the sustained and massive overland flow of goods. The UK - the third biggest buyer of fruits and vegetables from Spain – is also facing a huge shortage of truck drivers. Brexit, visa restrictions on EU drivers, poor pay and tough working conditions have all contributed to as much as 76,000 vacancies being unfilled (Logistics UK).

At the border itself, Brexit’s impact on the market has been significant, not least with regulations on trade putting new documentation requirements and controls in place. Overall according to the ESRI, Brexit has reduced total goods flows between the EU and the UK by almost one-fifth.

These high levels of disruption between Spain and the congested UK corridor demand a solution that not only alleviates pressure on truck transport and adds capacity to the network, but also does it in a sustainable way.

Customers demand greener solutions

With more and more customers paying attention to CO2 emissions, overland transport faces yet another enormous challenge in the upcoming years: handling the stable amount of cargo in an environmentally friendly way.

All modes of transport in cold chain logistics between Spain and the UK must respond to these challenges without sacrificing efficiency or costs. So what are the current options?

In overland transport, trucking is still one of the most frequently chosen modes for shipping fruits and vegetables. For shorter distances, its strengths lie in its efficiency and maneuverability. However, from a sustainability point of view, trucking emits a relatively high amount of CO2 using conventional fuel.

Short sea shipping is another suitable option within Europe. It stands for the ocean transport of containers over relatively short distances and offers large capacities, a long range and high safety standards. Other plus points are cost efficiency and a relatively good record on sustainability.

The third mode option is rail, more precisely reefer rail, which consists of containers designed to transport perishable goods at specific temperatures. These trains have a very high capacity - up to 150 cars per train is not uncommon – and have exceptional range. The European rail network extends over thousands of kilometers, and thanks to electrification, no stops are required during journeys.

Container load train

Sustainability is another strong argument for rail freight: according to EcoTransit, rail transport on the route from Alicante (Spain) to Peterborough (UK) emits just 0.54 tons of CO2.
With all factors considered – bottlenecks and disruptions on overland routes, the effects of Brexit and a focus on sustainability – what could faster, greener and more efficient options look like?

New reefer rail product connecting Spain with the UK

Sealand – A Maersk Company recently launched a new reefer rail product to support affected customers and provide a valuable solution to the current market challenges. The product connects Spain with the UK and is specifically designed for temperature-sensitive goods such as fruits and vegetables.

It initially offers three weekly departures from Valencia to London, ensuring exporters have their cold chain products delivered to their final destination in a timely manner. On the southbound journey back to Spain, the trains will also carry non-refrigerated cargo.

The new rail product is a response to the demand and needs of our customers. Now we are offering an efficient and environmentally friendly alternative for overland transport. Thanks to flexible capacities, significantly lower CO2 emissions and a focus on temperature-sensitive Spanish exports, we simplify supply chains for all customers.

Aruna hussain
Aruna Hussain
Managing Director Sealand Europe and Mediterranean

Sealand is currently working to offer more departures per week in line with growing customer demand, all the while creating synergies with ocean and land transport to enhance supply chain resilience. In the future, options like these could help parties diversify their risks during a critical period of disruption.

Visit Sealand at the leading event for worldwide trade of fruits and vegetables, Fruit Logistica, from 8-10 February 2023 in Berlin. Hall 26 / Booth D-40 at Messe Berlin, Messedamm 22, 14055 Berlin, Germany

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