Europe’s successful freight preferred railways: where are they?

2021/05/26 at 10:47 AM

Europe is definitely shifting towards railways to decarbonise the transport sector. More and more freight trains are running the continent. New types of fuels and digital innovations are being tested to make railways more reliable and competitive. Is it possible to launch more freight dedicated, or at least preferred as UIRR has recently proposed, lines to attract more volumes? Europe already has several railways of that type, which could be a good example for future developments. Where are they located?

With the growing importance of rail in moving freight, the sector faces new challenges. One of them is to adjust the necessary infrastructure to keep pace with the increasing traffic and especially to attract more volumes to the tracks. To this end, the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR) proposed a fascinating idea that is to launch freight preferred railways across Europe. “Establishing a consecutive network of freight preferred railway lines should be aimed for to ensure the quantity and quality of train paths needed for freight trains that deliver the modal shift objectives specified in the European Green Deal,” the umbrella organisation stressed in its position paper published earlier this year.

Wind turbines along the Betuweroute railway, source: ProRail

According to UIRR, the freight preferred railways should provide a prioritised way to freight trains, at least more than 50 per cent of the train paths. The passenger trains will be also allowed to run via this type of tracks but without priority. “These lines would not need to be upgraded to a higher line speed than 120 kilometres per hour, with some limited sections allowed to offer a line speed of only 80 – 100 kilometres per hour,” the association explained.

Meanwhile, there have been existing several railway lines in Europe, which are very similar to the mentioned criteria. Taking into account this fact, they could be characterised as the freight preferred railways (some of them could be even named as freight dedicated). Below you can read the list of four lines that successfully meet the priority for freight trains.

Betuweroute (Netherlands)

Let’s start with the Betuweroute railway in the Netherlands. It is the single-track electrified line between the German border and the Port of Rotterdam. The 159-kilometre-long railway was designed and constructed only for the rapid delivery of freight to the largest container port in Europe. As a result, the line got a big advantage: it is the freight dedicated railway with annual traffic of more than 20,000 trains that are able to speed up to 120 kilometres per hour.

Among Betuweroute’s cons are its high value (4.7 billion euro) and long construction period (almost 10 years). However, these disadvantages do not impact the further investments of the Dutch rail infrastructure manager, ProRail, into the line’s further development. It is worth adding that Alstom, the French supplier of rolling stock and railway solutions, used the Betuweroute railway to test Automatic Train Operation (ATO) technology in December 2018.

Broad Gauge Metallurgy Line (Poland)

Another example of the freight preferred railway is located in another part of Europe, in Poland. It is the Broad Gauge Metallurgy Line, which is also known under its Polish abbreviation LHS, that runs from the Ukrainian border towards Silesia. The 395-kilometre-long line is single-track and non-electrified, it provides the westernmost connection for 1,520-millimetre gauge by ending near Sławków, a small town around 30 kilometres eastward from Katowice.

First container train from China on the Broad Gauge Metallurgy Line in Poland, source: PKP LHS

Since 1979, the route has been operating mostly for the delivery of iron ore from the Kryvorizkyi Iron Ore Basin in Ukraine to Katowice Steelworks in Poland without an additional transhipment at the border. In the 1990s, there were running a few passenger trains from Olkusz or Zamość to various destinations in Ukraine and Russia but all of them were cancelled due to a low occupancy rate. Therefore, this line is completely dedicated to freight transport.

As of today, around 10 million tonnes of bulk freight is carried via the LHS line and the iron ore still dominates. However, PKP LHS, the state-owned company that manages the tracks and provides haulage operations on the route, is trying to diversify the range of goods. To this end, the first container train was launched from Xi’an in China to Sławków in January 2020. PKP LHS arranged two other connections with China: from Chongqing to Sławków and from Xi’an to Milan via Sławków. 40 container trains ran from China to Sławków in 2020, they transported more than 3,000 TEU containers. The Polish company is looking forward to the launching new container trains.

Malmbanan (Sweden and Norway)

Northern Europe has its freight preferred railway too. It is the Iron Ore Line, or Malmbanan in Swedish, that links the mines in in Norrbotten County of Sweden to the ports of Luleå (Sweden) and Narvik (Norway). The entire route of 398 kilometres long was opened for operations in 1903. Twenty years later the Malmbanan single-track line was electrified. As of today, the Iron Ore Line is mainly focused on the delivery of iron ore to the mentioned ports. There is only one daily passenger train between Luleå and Narvik (three other trains end their services in Kiruna). As a result, the line could be also described as freight preferred.

A freight train on the Malmbanan line in Sweden, source: Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, the Malmbanan line has another unique feature that differs it from other routes in Sweden. It is the axle load of 30 tonnes while the remaining rail network in the country is able to run freight trains with a maximum axle load of 25 tonnes. The higher figure was implemented in 2001 after significant modernisation works on the line. Meanwhile, it is not the end and LKAB Malmtrafik, which operates the freight trains on the route, intends to introduce the higher axle load, namely 32.5 tonnes. To this end, the ultra-heavy trains were tested on the Kiruna – Narvik section. For instance, the first train of this type consisted of 68 wagons and two locomotives with an overall weight of 8,731 tonnes.

Uzhhorod – Košice railway (Slovakia and Ukraine)

Slovakia, the southern neighbour of Poland, also has its freight dedicated railway that is the Uzhhorod – Košice broad-gauge line. The 87-kilometre-long electrified railway is very similar to the mentioned Polish LHS railway. First, it was also constructed in 1965-1966 to transport iron ore the Kryvorizkyi Iron Ore Basin in Ukraine to the East Slovakian Steelworks in Košice (its current name is U.S. Steel Košice). Second, it has no passenger traffic. In 2017 Ukraine’s government regarded the possibility of launching passenger trains to Slovakia via the mentioned broad gauge route but these plans were not implemented.

The Uzhhorod – Košice broad-gauge railway in Slovakia, source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 2010s Russia and Austria have been actively promoting the extension project dedicated to the construction of a broad gauge railway from Košice to Vienna. The national railway companies of four countries (Austria, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine) even incorporated a joint venture, Breitspur Planungsgesellschaft mbH, to develop the project. According to the preliminary estimations, the planned Košice – Vienna railway will cost more than 6 billion euros. After the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the armed conflict in Donbas in 2014, the project was put on pause. However, the Uzhhorod – Košice broad-gauge line has enough capacity for additional freight traffic, despite being a single-track railway. As of today, there are, on average, five daily freight trains running from Ukraine to U.S. Steel Košice.

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