The Story of a Banana Express

The spreading COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions imposed upon citizens made people realize, how vital it is to keep our supermarket shelves stocked at all times. Major retailers get fresh fruit and vegetable deliveries from wholesalers, who source their vitamins packed fresh produce all over the world.  Also in these times, when many parts of the transport industry are fighting with daily restrictions on road, sea, air part we can see how important is the effectiveness of the supply chain, and the key role of rail movements.

Bananas, high in demand especially during the winter times, face a long-distance ahead once they are harvested at plantations in South America. Still green, they are cut in large bunches by local farmers before they make it by trucks to the coastline, where they are loaded into reefer containers, owned by one of the shipping companies for their overseas journey. Once containerized, in the seaports or directly at the banana plants, the insulated reefer containers take good care of keeping the temperature stable enough so that they are ripe for eating when we unpack them from our shopping bags in Central Europe. Large container ships, capable of transporting up to 22,000 TEUs (containers) at once, are equipped with electric supply for each reefer container, what makes them, figuratively speaking, large fridges on a cruise line. Their destination – port of Hamburg. Here, in the fruit and cooling center O’Swaldkai operated by Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA), chilled containers are unloaded from the ships. But how do they get further to the region of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)?

The customer, a large family-owned Polish fruit and vegetable wholesaler, has been supplying major CEE retailers for a long time. Resisting the corporate world, here the business, built by a father, was handed over to two sons, who have grown it even further. By having own vegetable plantations in Poland and sourcing fresh fruit and vegetables all across Europe, trucking – thanks to its speed – is a preferred option of cargo transportation. Even the South American bananas destined for markets close to Hamburg – such as Poland – get unloaded from ships directly onto semitrailers for their way to distribution centers of the retailers. Yet the fruit rich in potassium is popular deeper in the central and eastern Europe too. Thousands of tons would have to travel on congested roads by trucks all across Europe – if it wasn’t for a solution that HHLA’s subsidiary – METRANS – came up with.

Customer’s own capacity to provide forwarding services made the whole deal easier, only requesting METRANS to rise up to a big challenge: Get the bananas for a 1,000 km journey across Europe all the way to Budapest – within 48 hours. In the Hungarian capital, the customer built a large distribution warehouse, from where trucks made the final leg of the journey into the supermarket stores. It took 2 years of preparations to make this possible. By saving 44 truck journeys every week, big loads were at stake. As the bananas become ripe over time, 2 days of transfer time was the critical demand as reefer containers are unplugged from the electricity supply and as they are insulated, they can hold the perfect temperature for just about this time. In case of a delay, the damage would mean one thousand tons of overripe bananas thrown away – and empty fruit shelves in hundreds of shops.

A train full of bananas: a fresh fruit logistics solution by METRANS

Before regular trips, a testing round trip had to be executed – to prove the customer that METRANS promises an equal reality. Thanks to having its own multisystem locomotives, own wagons, and a license to operate trains in all the countries on the way, it was a success. The 1,750-ton heavy train, pulled by a single locomotive, made it from Hamburg port to METRANS owned terminal in Budapest on time. It has passed through Germany, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary with a green light from all the railway infrastructure companies in these countries as one of the priority trains. The METRANS Banana express was born.

Not long after trains from northern German ports to Budapest became a standard, the customer has challenged METRANS once again: This time – keep the transit time, but lengthen the journey by another 250 km. As the customer has built new central refrigerated warehouses in the Romanian town of Arad (in the western part of Romania, close to a border station of Curtici), it was desired to get bananas all the way there. “We had to do the same procedure all over again: routing of the train, approvals, transfers from the train into the central warehouses. But despite we added one more country and 250 km to the route, we made it: METRANS trains between Hamburg and Arad now run once a week regularly”, says Miloš Mervart, Chief of Customer Service at METRANS /Danubia/, a.s. This regularity doubles to two trains a week in the peak season – winter. The only difference from former Budapest trip is that the train gets fresh new horsepower in Slovak capital of Bratislava, where a new METRANS locomotive takes over the second leg of the journey to Romania. This is done in no time, to protect the precious cargo in 44 box containers behind the locomotive.

While unit trains now run all the way from Germany to Romania, Hungarian Budapest still gets is share of bananas by rail as requested by the customer. While unit trains run to Romania, more customers are served by a train connection of Budapest and Hamburg or Bremerhaven, bananas included. It is a matter of spot market demands, flexibly responded by METRANS.

As the expansion towards the east continues, there are fresh new negotiations on the table at the moment. Customer’s warehouses in the Romanian capital Bucharest might become the next frontier of the Banana express, adding further 600 km to its journey. Once successfully completed, it will be the longest European continental journey for fresh bananas, reaching a staggering 1,850 km.

As mentioned at the beginning the movement from port of Hamburg to Hungary and later with an extended journey to Romania we are saving trucking of 44 trucks/week, in winter season 88 trucks/week, there we can say and we can see that rail movement can be adequate replacement of trucks, and with this change, we produce much less CO2. This is also one of the key advantages which helps us to keep our environment healthier.

Once unloaded and returned to the terminal, empty containers head back to Hamburg to be handed over to the shipping lines for their next use. Based upon their request, they might be transported by METRANS to a depot in Budapest too, where they are loaded with fresh food made in Europe, much beloved in the Asian markets, and head in these reefers for their next adventurous journey by rail to one of Europe major seaports.