The HHLA rail subsidiary Metrans has been transporting containers between ports and their hinterlands for three decades. Having started out with two trains per week, today the company has around 550 in its entire network, making it one of the leading private rail operators in Europe.
When talking about an anniversary celebration at Metrans, there is one name that cannot be left out: Jiri Samek. Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, he represented a Czechoslovakian state company in Poland, where he was responsible for transporting containers from Polish ports to Prague. Then came the transition to capitalism. As the great visionary that he was, Jiri Samek took advantage of the new-found freedom. Instead of accepting the top job in a state-run transportation company, he decided to pursue the new opportunities available. In Spring 1991, he established his own company. This was the birth of Metrans.
His idea: to connect the then Czechoslovakia to the seaport in Hamburg. The river Elbe links Prague to Hamburg via the river Vltava. What was traditionally one of the most important trade routes had been cut off by the Iron Curtain. Container transport by rail was also only possible within the Eastern Bloc. As a result, most goods had to be transported on the congested road network. Until October 1991, when a Metrans rail terminal finally opened in the Uhříněves district of Prague.
The company’s home rail terminal is still located there today, close to a high-rise housing estate. Shortly afterwards, in February 1992, the first container-laden shuttle train travelled between Hamburg and the Czechoslovakian capital. It soon became clear that the chosen path would be a successful one.
A key element in Metrans’ sustainable growth was HHLA’s investment in the company in the mid-1990s. The investment amounts increased and were used to build high-performance terminals. The company rapidly developed its efficient intermodal network.
Frequent rail connections and customised services attracted many new customers. Metrans CEO Peter Kiss summarises the company’s philosophy as follows: “We offer simple, neutral solutions in the complex environment of intermodal transport. Our primary aim is to assist our customers in a range of different situations which are sometimes very specific.”
And customers particularly appreciate the all-inclusive service, which includes customs clearance, depot and shunting services, and pre-carriage and on-carriage using heavy goods vehicles. However, the productive basic principle at Metrans is the following: To transport containers swiftly away from ports using the frequent shuttle connections and then sort them in the five hinterland hub terminals in Poznań (Poland), Prague and Česká Třebová (both in the Czech Republic), Dunajská Streda (Slovakia) and Budapest.
From there, they complete the final mile of their journey to the recipients on “antenna trains” and heavy goods vehicles. The swift and continuous transportation away from ports also provides HHLA with operational benefits, not least during the coronavirus pandemic and its associated backlogs of containers.
Today, Metrans is one of the leading private rail operators in Europe and is the market leader in container transport within and from port hinterlands in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Its entire European network comprises 17 of its own and other associated terminals.
Another hub terminal is currently under construction in the Hungarian city of Zalaegerszeg, on the transport axis between the Adriatic ports of Trieste, Koper and Rijeka. A corresponding agreement was signed with the Hungarian government in February 2021. The first section of the facility being built will go into operation in 2023.
The reason for the project: The volume of containers transported by rail in Hungary has grown steadily in recent years. Metrans is benefiting from this, especially through the terminal in Budapest, which opened in 2017. In the first year, around 250,000 standard containers (TEU) were handled at this facility alone, and the figure had increased to 484,769 TEUper year by 2020. By way of comparison, Metrans handled around 470,000 TEU in 2005 for the whole of Europe.
However, Hungary is of major significance not just for the expansion of the Metrans network to Southern and South-Eastern Europe. The network, and specifically the Budapest terminal, are a key component in the New Silk Road. Rail freight traffic between Asia and Europe has increased significantly in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic and resulting capacity bottlenecks in shipping have given an added boost to this development. Since the war in Ukraine started by Russia, however, further developments have become unpredictable.
In addition to its frequent rail connections, dense network and extensive services, innovativeness is a key feature at Metrans. Up until 2004, the HHLA intermodal subsidiary depended on wagons owned by the national rail operators in Germany and the Czech Republic. These had to be ordered in advance and were not always reliably provided.
The company, therefore, decided to develop its own wagons together with the Slovakian freight train manufacturer Tatravagonka. This initiative has proven to be an impressive success: The 3,000 wagons owned by Metrans today are mostly lightweight flat wagons and very energy-efficient. The stock of lightweight flat wagons continues to grow, with around 200 new wagons added to it every year. They are around four tonnes lighter than conventional container wagons, have a lower rolling resistance and require less energy to operate.
A special design allows containers on the 700-metre-long block trains to be placed closer together, meaning more containers can be transported on the same length train. The container wagons are also fitted with what are known as “whispering” (composite) brakes, thus halving the driving and braking noise generated by the wagons.
Metrans also pursues an approach of innovative sustainability with its locomotives. It was the first company in the world to test this environmentally friendly hybrid technology on shunting. Depending on the assignment, they can run on battery power for between 50 and 70 percent of the time they are in operation. This can reduce fuel consumption and cut CO2 emissions by up to 50 percent. Nitrogen dioxide emissions can be as much as 70 percent lower.
Metrans is thus ideally positioned for the future. Further investments in the fleet's sustainability, the network and the company’s digitalisation strategy will ensure that the company overcomes the challenges facing seaport-hinterland transportation. Chairwoman of HHLA’s Executive Board, Angela Titzrath, praised what the company has achieved to date when the figures for the first quarter were presented: “Our rail subsidiary Metrans once again made an outstanding contribution to the positive course of business in the first quarter of 2021. 30 years after its inception, Metrans has every reason to be proud of what it has achieved.”