Heinz-Jürgen Hiller, Business Development LNG at VTG Rail Europe, looks at LNG transportation by rail and the important role it could play in the future of the LNG industry.
In April 2021, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU agreed on a new European climate law and substantially raised the EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target for 2030. At the same time, GHG neutrality by 2050 – which is at the heart of the Green Deal – was for the first time anchored in law at an EU level. Energy-intensive industries and the mobility sector in particular face huge challenges as a result.
Transitioning from processes previously based on fossil fuels demands innovative climate change mitigation technologies and a fundamental systemic transformation. While LNG harbours exceptional potential as a source of energy, it will probably not be possible to produce it in sufficiently large quantities in Germany. This is where logistics comes in, playing a key role in the widespread success of technologies based on this energy source. In this context, rail is the ideal climate-friendly alternative to pipelines and road haulage.
LNG on the rails – toward a successful new transport paradigm
LNG drive technologies are already successfully deployed today, mostly in heavy-duty transport. They are gradually substituting for diesel engines in trucks and ships and can significantly reduce emissions. Given that CO2 emissions in the mobility sector have for years been declining only slowly, this development is indeed an urgent imperative.
LNG is now produced in many countries and regions that have large reserves of natural gas and should in future be brought to Germany too by sea. The first LNG terminal is scheduled to go into service in Brunsbüttel on Germany’s North Sea coast, approximately 90 km from Hamburg. From here, the liquefied gas can then either be fed into the gas grid or forwarded to consumers.
According to VTG, rail freight has an important role to play: specially made tank cars allow LNG to be transported safely, flexibly, and in large volumes from coastal terminals to inland destinations. In collaboration with its project partners Chart Ferox and Waggonbau Graaff, VTG has become the first (and to date only) company in the rail sector to design, develop, and build a tank car specifically to carry LNG across Europe by bypassing shipping routes, road networks, and pipelines. This innovative freight wagon was unveiled in 2015.
The tank car is fitted with a special suspension and bearing technology that protects it against shocks and ensures the necessary safety during rail transportation. It also boasts a special form of insulation to guarantee that the gas can be kept – constantly and for long periods – at the requisite temperature of -162°C during filling and in transit. One LNG tank has a volume of 111 m3 and can be loaded (at the specified filling temperature) with roughly 95 – 100 m3 of the product – the equivalent of approximately 600 000 kWh per wagon.
While most LNG is currently carried on Europe’s roads, two of these innovative tank cars can replace five trucks. Shifting to the rail-based movement of LNG can thus sharply reduce transport costs and contribute to a positive environmental footprint.
One model scenario illustrates the potential scope of transport avoidance: via a rail link between Leuna, Germany and Bucharest, Romania, two tank cars, each with a 42-t payload, carry six cryogenically liquefied LNG consignments a month. A total of 504 t of LNG is thus transported each month. As trucks are limited to a maximum load of 30 t on this 1650-km journey, it would take 17 trucks to carry the same volume by road. As a result, 831 600 tkm of freight can be transferred from road to rail every month, working out at 9.98 million tkm/y.
Nor is a positive environmental footprint the only factor in favour of rail: statistically, the transportation of hazardous goods – of which LNG is one – is 40 times safer by rail than it is by road.
Tank cars thus become a pivotal link in the multimodal supply chain. Long distances can be covered by rail, with trucks remaining a good option for the ‘first and last mile’.
Pipeline to go – successful pilot testing for LNG transport by rail
In September 2021, VTG completed another successful LNG transport test. The special-purpose tank car was loaded on the premises of Brunsbüttel Ports GmbH in Brunsbüttel, a key seaport at the point where the Kiel Canal gives onto the mouth of the Elbe. The LNG was then transported by rail to a destination approximately 800 km away, where it was transhipped and delivered to the end customer.
According to VTG, this test proved that LNG can be carried by rail quickly, reliably, safely, and sustainably. VTG already possesses the expertise and the logistical concepts it needs to move LNG around the European rail network in a climate-friendly manner. In effect, its LNG tank cars serve as a ‘pipeline to go’, quickly and reliably delivering a large supply of LNG to industries with sizable energy needs.
Need for improvement in regulatory conditions
The benefits of rail are self-evident: this mode of transport can play a key role in driving the success of the energy transition and the new transport paradigm. However, work remains to be done if new kinds of goods such as LNG are to be carried by rail on a large scale in practice. In this domain, political support is needed to underpin rail’s standing as a sustainable mode of transport.
LNG technology can and will play a part in reducing GHG emissions and will become an integral component of the energy mix. In building its LNG tank car, VTG has made the first move. However, Germany does not yet have a single suitable loading terminal – a situation that must be changed in very short order. To ensure a reliable supply of LNG on the European market, a variety of supply channels and sources must be used. An import terminal equipped with the right infrastructure to distribute large volumes of LNG far and wide would wean the supply of natural gas off dependency on pipelines. In the foreseeable future, alternative energy sources will become globally traded products, and the rail network is one way to safeguard cross-border distribution – reliably and in a way that is kind to the climate. That, however, will happen only if all countries can agree to harmonised transport and transhipment terms.