Rail guided by tracks: ERA outlines key obstacles for developing combined transport in Europe

2022/05/19 at 7:54 PM

Combined transport is an efficient tool for achieving strategic goals of the European Green Deal and the Fit for 55 plan. Meanwhile, there are some crucial obstacles on the European railway network that can slow down the decarbonisation of the transport sector. Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of the EU Agency for Railways (ERA), has indicated some of them.

CargoBeamer provides a combined transport connection between France and Italy, source: CargoBeamer

“Combining different transport modes is really important for the European Green Deal, one plus one is three. It is good for the economy due to fewer congestions on the roads. It is good for the climate as sustainable transport modes are the dominant leg. It is good for energy saving in the course of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Daniel Mes, Member of the Cabinet of Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the European Commission, at the CT4EU online conference “Introducing Zero Carbon Combined Transport”, which took place on Thursday, 19 May.

The event, which was organised by the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR), an umbrella organisation of European road-rail combined transport operators and transhipment terminal managers, was dedicated to the role of combined transport in implementing the goals of the European Green Deal and the Fit for 55 plan. During the conference, Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of the EU Agency for Railways (ERA), presented an exciting report regarding the key obstacles to the development of combined transport, which consequently can reduce its importance. Below you can find the most interesting excerpts from his presentation.

Inefficient use of existing infrastructure

“What is the big problem? Obviously, we have a capacity gap in the European railway system. The first step to gaining more capacity would be to better utilise what you already have, the existing infrastructure. On Monday, Michael Stahl and I went to another event. He gave an example of the Rotterdam – Genoa corridor, where on the left bank of the Rhine, in France, there is a double-track railway line that exists but is not used. So, it could be the first step.

Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of the EU Agency for Railways, source: the EU Agency for Railways (ERA)

Another one is that, obviously, capacity is limited in peak times. And we have an uneven distribution of load, in particular in terminals. This is also a consequence of our poor planning capabilities. I am always ashamed that for a lorry you can predict arrival at plus-minus 10 minutes. We, in rail, are proud of plus-minus 12 hours. If you can predict the arrival of a train at a terminal only in a half-day accuracy, you should not be surprised when you have load situations.”

Physical infrastructure

“To show you the importance of the physical infrastructure, I have drawn up two concrete cases (see the picture below). This is a very simplified model but it is accurate in its conclusions. You have a freight train running at 120 kilometres per hour. On the left, you have the 20-kilometre-long segment without interchange possibility and crossover, on the right you have block sections every five kilometres with crossover. In rough terms, the left situation corresponds to the situation in Germany, where all the crossover possibilities have been removed during the last couple of years due to cost reasons because switches and their maintenance are expensive. The right situation corresponds to Austria and Switzerland, where there are many crossovers every couple of kilometres and where all the lines are signalled in both directions.

If we look at the travel time, it is the same in both cases. Capacity on the left is six trains per hour, and on the right is 24 trains per hour. But the key problem appears when we are in a situation of disturbance. As the left track is not signalled, you can run only at 40 kilometres per hour. If it is signalled, you can continue at your travel speed. In a degraded mode, the travel time increases drastically and the throughput capacity decreases even more drastically: 1.5 trains per hour on the left and 12 trains per hour, which is still a reasonable capacity.

There is a capacity gap in the European railway system, source: a screenshot of Josef Doppelbauer’s presentation at the CT4EU online conference “Introducing Zero Carbon Combined Transport”

This is a physical structural problem. Rail is guided by tracks. Rail is operated in the physical separation of space and time. And when a train ahead of you has stopped, you cannot over it, you have to wait until the track will be cleared. In aviation, you can go in three dimensions, on the road you can go around obstacles, on the rail you can’t. And the most expensive and sophisticated digital technologies cannot solve this problem. So, the key message is that we need a proper working on physical infrastructure that has the right and frequent possibilities to overtake. Otherwise, we will be always limited in capacity.”

Unharmonised train length

“The next element is called compatibility. It means that your vehicles are compatible with infrastructure. Some key aspects are, of course, axle load, loading gauge, signalling system, etc. There is one aspect that does not necessarily have to do with compatibility but nonetheless it is a very annoying feature, also for combined transport. In Europe, we do not have a harmonised train length. We have a nominal train length of 740 metres but in some countries, we have different definitions of what 740 metres mean, in some countries, we have 835 metres, and in others 600 metres. In Italy, there is a different train length for every railway line. What does it mean? Either you normalise to the shortest train length, 550 metres, then you lose a lot of capacity and efficiency, or you have to change and shunt on every border and then you lose again efficiency, time and money.”

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