The Rail Logistics of Mercer Holz

The German Mercer mills have relied on rail for their wood supply from the very beginning. Since 2004, more than 27,650 freight trains have been dispatched carrying roundwood, wood chips, and sawn timber. Currently, one-third of Mercer’s demand in Germany is transported by rail. This saves 80,000 truck journeys per year.

Rail vs Truck Transport at Mercer Holz

No logistics can function without Mercer’s most important resource – the employees who ensure smooth logistics every day and can guarantee the supply of raw materials to Mercer’s operations. Rail Logistics has several major areas of responsibility, such as a scheduling department and wagon management. In addition, the team also has an accounting group and a rail development team which focuses on field services at loading stations. For a better understanding of the respective areas within Mercer Holz, colleagues from the different departments were interviewed about their work.

For train scheduling, Nicole Engelhardt

What’s your normal day like?

Daily tasks include checking all scheduled train runs as well as loading and unloading. In doing so, we are in constant exchange with all parties involved, such as rail transport companies, those responsible for the loading stations, and Mercer Holz truck dispatching.

On top of the day-to-day business, we look at the upcoming weeks and are constantly planning ahead so that we can arrange all the necessary resources in good time. Only when we have determined the rail wagons, loading points, and truck forwarding companies can we firmly schedule and order a train.

How many trains are you planning for at once?

In parallel, as a team, we plan for 25 wagon fleets (one fleet corresponds to one train), which provides 30-35 train loadings and unloadings per week at all operations and transports. These trains run not only to Mercer locations, but also to partner plants and, increasingly, for third parties within Germany — even across national borders to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria.

What are the biggest challenges in scheduling?

We are constantly faced with new situations, such as short-term changes in the amount of wood required by the mills or track closures in rail operations, where plans must be adjusted with short notice. In addition, there are influences that are not always within our control, such as weather events or construction on the tracks. 

Furthermore, we have to keep a special eye on the railroad infrastructure at Mercer Stendal. With more than 50 train movements (with empty and full wagons) a week with only six tracks in the station in front of the mill, there is a lot to coordinate in terms of departure, unloading, and arrival. This is done in conjunction with meeting all of the requirements of the other mills while taking into account their specific operational conditions. However, cross-border transports come with considerably more coordination requirements between the railroad companies involved and customers can be challenging.

For wagon management, Chris Meyer

What’s your normal day like?

Simply put, my goal is to have all freight cars in the Mercer Holz rail fleet available for log and chip hauling. That’s pretty challenging with over 550 railcars operated in-house. Every day, I check all reports on any problems or damage to the wagons and plan to resolve the concerns as quickly as possible. To do so, I organize inspections and subsequently, if necessary, repairs for the parked wagons by specialized companies. At the same time, I monitor the inspection periods and schedule them in consultation with the railroad scheduling department so that downtime is kept to a minimum. I also check the maintenance costs incurred along with the commercial costs of maintenance.

How has wagon management changed as a result of the standardization of wagons?

The standardization has simplified claims handling and communication with all parties involved. Uniform handling processes for all wagons allow them to be managed very efficiently. In addition, all Mercer wagons have a telematics unit that allows us to track the wagons at any time and also identify and track damage at an early stage. One of my tasks here is to constantly develop this system.

What are the biggest challenges in wagon management?

In order to ensure efficient management of Mercer Holz rolling stock, I have to know and familiarize myself with all of the relevant contracts, safety regulations, and operating instructions so that I can apply them in my daily work. Another challenge is tracing damage to the wagons which is only learned when they reach our operations. I have to then reconstruct the location and cause of damage in order to redeem costs by the party responsible, thus keeping Mercer’s expenses low. If a freight car breaks down, I have to procure replacements to keep the impact on timber logistics low. I handle the organization of on-site repairs and the procurement and stocking of spare parts in the same way.

For loading stations and railroad development, Thoralf Ziesmann

What’s your normal day like?

During a field service assignment, I drive to a loading terminal. These are usually rented from an infrastructure operator. On-site, I meet with those responsible for the infrastructure to clarify issues and solve problems. This could be, for example, soiling of the loading area or damage to the various structures by the log trucks.

Through a joint inspection of the facility, the damages are recorded and evaluated, with a solution brought about. With this personal approach, we can immediately clear up a number of obstacles at our own or rented loading stations, without having to close down at any point.

I also check the condition of both rented and owned stations regularly. That means the working safety, cleaning condition, and possible damages, which we report to the infrastructure manager (e.g. DB-Netz). The organization of regular cleaning appointments with subcontractors and the disposal of the bark, some of which we can drive to our plants for incineration, is an essential contribution to the occupational safety of our carriers and railroad personnel and requires on-site intervention.

In some cases, an employee of the infrastructure operator is also on-site during the inspection. For our own stations, I take care of maintenance at the loading point and work to improve occupational safety following Mercer’s “Road to Zero”. Afterwards, the evaluation and processing of the field services take place.

Can you describe a wood loading station?

I can give a short summary starting with Mercer’s own loading station in Bodenfelde. The timber loading station has a loading edge that corresponds to the length of a block train (approximately 600 meters), which is optimal for our requirements but unfortunately not common Germany-wide. Such a loading station consists of a loading road — where our contracted external forwarders load the train either by truck, excavator or from previously provided log piles — and of another road to a log storage area, as well as the unloading area and the exit.  

All loading points have different conditions, meaning access, exit, storage possibilities, and natural and topographical conditions are not always comparable. This is especially evident when it comes to traffic management; ensuring the wait times of the trucks and their safe arrival and departure is a very important and cost-saving moment.

What are your biggest challenges at the stations?

As a link between my Mercer Holz colleagues, the infrastructure operators, and the freight forwarders, cases come up time and again that require creative problem-solving, ideally combined with on-site discussions with all parties involved.

The passability of the stations is, of course, a big issue, especially in the fall and winter months. We solve something like this together with the entire rail logistics team. So far, we have been able to solve every problem through collaboration.

The most important thing in all activities is, of course, the safety of all acting persons in the station area and during the loading of round timber. Through my inspections at the loading points, as well as the loading training courses held several times a year in different regions for all forwarding agents and dispatchers, we maintain our high safety standards.  

For employee and railroad accounting, Anja Duks

What’s your normal day like?

Every day, my colleague and I process and account for incoming invoices by checking and reconciling them with the existing contracts, agreements, orders, train schedules, and offers that arise in rail logistics. Furthermore, I record and maintain the data of the train runs, cancellations, reroutes, and rent for the wagons, as well as rent, cleaning, and repair of the stations. Another big point is the preparation and follow-up for month-end and the preparation of outgoing invoices for rail traction in third-party traffic.

To ensure the efficient processing of trains and routes traveled, we work with SAP and maintain the data. The processing of repair and maintenance orders on the wagons also falls under us.

How does cooperation with scheduling and wagon management work?

Very well. For the processing, account assignment, and checking of documents, consultation and cooperation with the other departments in rail logistics are very important. We have several meetings a week with the entire rail logistics department, where we ask questions directly and solve problems together as a team.

What are the biggest challenges in accounting?    

We have to make sure that all invoices are checked for accuracy and that only agreed services are paid for at agreed conditions.

Then we must also allocate invoices to the correct services and ensure that no services are billed twice and that no overpayments are made. We also make sure that all invoices comply with formal requirements and payment deadlines.

Outlook for future developments in the railroad at Mercer Holz

Mercer Holz, thanks to its highly motivated, professional logistics team, has managed to become one of the biggest players in European wood rail freight transport.

Over the next few years, Mercer Holz plans to increase its share of rail transport. In order to achieve this goal, and be able to handle an even larger share of logistics, Mercer Holz is focusing on several key areas.

One key area is the expansion and development of the necessary rail infrastructure. Together with various partners, work is being done on the electrification of the “last mile” (16 kilometers of rail from the Borstel branch to Mercer Stendal) from the Stendal train station to the pulp mill. Furthermore, the expansion and optimization of the loading infrastructure are also being pursued to load block trains at as many locations as possible.

In addition to the infrastructure, the expansion of the wagon stock is also a high priority in order to transport more wood by rail in the future. For continued efficiency with an increased number of wagons, digitalization is increasingly addressed. For example, the use of telematics units will enable online evaluation of wagon loading.

As with all investments in today’s conversations on sustainability, a goal of high importance is on reducing CO2 emissions. This is done in alignment with Mercer’s sustainability goals.

Since the company’s inception, Mercer Holz has offered various rail logistics services to third-party customers; we will continue to do so, with mitigating climate change at the top of our minds.