Overseas freight: Pandemics and natural disasters always affect us

At the beginning of 2020, there was the storm “Ciara”, then arrived the corona virus (COVID-19): When schools and factories remain closed, public transport is paralyzed and cautionary warnings are issued, the first to be affected are the individuals. However, the consequences go further than one might see at first glance: The transport industry is also severely impacted not only by states of emergency, such as pandemics and natural disasters, but also by the political tensions in many countries. This is why, Joël Arnoux, Head of the overseas freight department at ITS, has a completely different perception of the daily news. For example, when he heard about storm “Ciara” in early February, the first thing he asked was whether rail and Rhine traffic was disrupted and whether the harbors were blocked.

The overseas freight department deals mainly with the import and export of standard goods. These include foodstuffs, machinery goods, furniture, textiles, paints and glue. One of Switzerland's main import goods are sauces. The primary exports are machinery and cheese. It is mostly container transport, but sometimes the department also handles the transport of so-called groupage cargo, which is then moved on individual pallets.

A storm like “Ciara” would cause major problems: such a force of nature can sweep the whole planning overboard. This starts with the duration of the journey - the 30 days that a shipment from Asia to Switzerland usually takes are extended. But it is not only that, the harbors themselves are affected. Because of “Ciara”, the terminals in the north of Europe were closed for three days so ships could not be loaded or unloaded. Nor could be loaded or unloaded the ships on the Rhine.

Such delays disrupt the entire transport chain because the onward transport, on other ships, trucks or trains, is then no longer possible. Just like when you have missed the connecting train in Olten and are standing on the platform like a "forgotten luggage on the carrousel". And then the next train is cancelled…

“In our industry, natural phenomena have almost always more or less severe consequences” explains Joël Arnoux. And usually not just one, but a whole slew of them. So, after 20 years in the business, he has become an expert in the navigation of such situations and is very much familiar with the challenges and problems of global transport.

There is for example one thing that he can’t help but notice: the cargo vessels are getting bigger and bigger. Today, 90% of the trade is carried by ship. A modern freight ship is 350 meters long. Nowadays, a shipload comprises 24’000 containers, whereas not so long ago we could load no more than 15’000 and even “only” 8’000 a few years before that. Under normal circumstances, the harbors are already operating at their limits. So, when “Ciara” or COVID-19 unleash their evil, there are moments when everything is at standstill.

The port of Shanghai, one of the world's most important trading harbors, is fully automated and the main functions are operational, but the corona crisis generated a different effect here as early as February: China the most important production country was in a state of emergency for weeks, many factories were closed and consequently, the largest trade route, China - USA, was paralyzed. If no goods are produced, there are also no goods to be loaded and transported. Ships must proceed empty - if they are allowed to continue at all. The demand however does not go away because of this situation. Once the route was reopened and goods were available again, more cargo had to be transported in less time, so air freight skyrocketed. Already in "normal" times, the airports would not have had sufficient capacity and the system would have been overloaded. Recently, passenger planes fully loaded with masks, had to be chartered daily from Asia to Europe.

A difficult situation that Joël Arnoux has had to deal with for months. Regardless of whether we, in Switzerland, are affected by a crisis or not, the transport industry always feels the effects and must make projections of possible consequences for our supply situation and delivery conditions, weeks in advance. However, for him the “extraordinary” situation is never really extraordinary, it is his daily routine. There is always something:

“Finding solutions to exceptional situations was and will always be a big part of my job. We get up in the morning, go to work and never know what the day will bring. Sometimes the Rhine has too little water, sometimes too much, then comes “Ciara”, now COVID-19. But overcoming such hurdles brings the greatest satisfaction. When I see the goods in the shop, I remember how demanding the project was, and feel proud that we have done it, once again.”


[Translate to Englisch:] Joël Arnoux, Leiter Überseetransport ITS International Transport & Shipping Ltd.