Gefco chief outlines greener European road freight vision

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Source: Lloyd's Loading List, 2020-10-21

The head of one Europe’s leading industrial logistics companies has set out his vision for greener and more sustainable road freight in Europe, calling time on diesel-driven trucks and advocating the deployment of both electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles served by high-capacity recharging terminals located across the continent.

“Our strong presence in the automotive vertical means we can fully appreciate the speed with which the industry is being transformed by the shift to electrically-driven vehicles and there are lessons to be learnt here for transportation and logistics,” Luc Nadal, who heads France-based Gefco, told French business newspaper Les Echos  in a recent interview.

His comments were confirmed to Lloyd’s Loading List by a group spokesperson.

“The technology already exists for last-mile transport: we have vehicles capable of driving 500km between recharging, and developments in this segment are set to accelerate. It’s time to take a big step forward in this respect for long-distance (road freight) transport.”

Nadal supports the creation of road terminals dotted across Europe’s main freight corridors – vast parking areas with the capacity to recharge 40 or 50 electrical or hydrogen-powered trucks simultaneously within a very short timeframe, not more than 40 minutes.

No significant disruption

With this system “we have zero carbon emissions, and no significant disruption in the relationship between carriers and their customers”, he highlighted.

Drivers would no longer make ‘end-to-end’ journeys, for example from Barcelona to Frankfurt, but would transport loads to the next recharging terminal before picking up another trailer, he explained, adding that this was more in keeping with the changes in the “sociology” of the profession. 

“Today, drivers are increasingly reluctant to spend a week away from home, even those from Eastern Europe,” he noted.

Nadal did not elaborate on the cost of the re-charging stations which would be connected to high-voltage power lines. But he underlined that they could be run via a public-private sector partnership, an ecosystem bringing together energy companies, truck manufacturers, motorway operators, insurance firms and public authorities.

In France and in some other European countries, land-based ‘sustainable’ freight transport initiatives have tended to focus on the development of ‘rail’ motorways, where trucks and trailers are loaded on to trains and transported over long distances with the aim of reducing congestion on roads and air pollution.

Modal shift is pointless

However, according to Nadal, a former director of the French state railways principal rail freight arm Fret SNCF and who heads a company which is 75%-owned by Russian Railways, a modal shift of this kind can only be a half-measure at best.

“Seeking to increase the relevance of rail freight is pointless,” he commented. “Many of our customers work with zero stock. What they want is to receive a truck in their factory every four hours – and certainly not a train once a week.”

Nadal also highlighted the severe impact on Gefco’s business from the pandemic-driven lockdowns in almost all of Europe, given the company’s heavy dependence on the automotive sector.

As a result of the “four horrific months from March to June”, during which vehicle manufacturers closed their plants, the group is expecting a decline of 20-25% in its turnover in 2020 (which totalled €4.7bn last year) and a 35-40% drop in recurring operating income.

In the April-May period, Gefco fell into the red; and after putting a freeze on expenses and investments, “the rate of profit generation is now nominal”, Nadal noted. 

He said Gefco is not expected to return to a pre-COVID level of activity for another two years.

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