Sat Jun 16th, 2012 at 07:19:59 AM EST
This week I have a bunch of news related to rail privatisation, one related to the BRT mirage, one on electrification in Denmark, and one on a new line in the Netherlands. I'll start with a story from Berlin.
In the drive to turn former state monopolist German Railways (DB) into a listed company, from the nineties, the separate suburban rapid transit (S-Bahn) network of Berlin got its own management, which achieved high operating margins by saving on ordered vehicles and on essential maintenance. Predictably, this resulted in accidents and in 2009 hundreds of vehicles were pulled from service for maintenance. This in turn resulted in a chaos in services with effects lasting to this day.
Berlin politicians were naturally fed up with DB. But the solution that was brought into play was to void the exclusive agreement with DB and tender the operation of at least some Berlin S-Bahn services (that is, the application of the privatisation model preferred for subsidized local rail across Europe, franchising). How this solves the basic problem of the profit focus and technology-ignorance of managers, I don't know. At any rate, the Grand Coalition (SPD + CDU) city government that emerged from the Berlin elections last September seemed favourable to the idea.
However, a change in the Berlin SPD now makes re-tendering less likely. This week the party booted the minister responsible for transport from the party chairman position, electing Jan Stöß from the left wing of the party instead. Stöß said that he wants to prevent the privatisation of the S-Bahn and wants to keep it in public responsibility.
Next is another pair of news related to DB, but moving on to the long-distance passenger market.
Back on 23 April, representatives of the Czech Republic and the German state of Bavaria met to sign a memorandum calling for the improvement of cross-border rail connections. This would be sorely needed, because there isn't a single electrified link along the common border. Yet another news five weeks later was the discontinuation of Nuremberg–Prague services at the end of this year...
Why the discontinuation? Presently, both long-distance routes across the Bavarian-Czech border (between Prague and Nuremberg resp. Munich) are served by the alex trains of "private" railway Vogtlandbahn, which is currently a subsidiary of Netinera, a company majority-owned by the Italian State Railways (FS). The services are franchises awarded in 2007. So what did DB do? On the Nuremberg–Prague route, they launched a competing long-distance... bus service. (Domestically, DB forcefully argues against the liberalisation of long-distance bus services, which is pursued by the neolib idiots in the federal government.)
The model the EU chose to "liberalise" long-distance passenger transport is not franchising but open access: ownership and operation of track and trains is separated, with competition of train services allowed on the same routes. As I reported, two of the biggest open-access ventures so far are Austria's WESTbahn and Italy's NTV, both of which prepared for launch with lots of conflict with the incumbent. But based on recent news, their success so far has been so-so.
WESTbahn's CEO was Klaus Wehinger, a former manager of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB). But Wehinger leaves his post at the end of this month, reportedly due to personal differences with the main shareholder and the disappointing performance of the company. WESTbahn launched its trains last December, and in the first half year, it was 20% below target, and now expects to stay in the red even at the end of the year. I suspect the reason is less in low passenger numbers than in the murderous price and legal war with ÖBB (which I reported in detail here).
Meanwhile, after long delays mostly related to the commissioning of its AGV high-speed trains, NTV launched its Milan–Naples services on 28 April. After four weeks, NTV reported a rather meagre seat occupancy of 41%. 95% of the services were less than 15 minutes late, 81% less than 5 minutes, though the chief culprit here is probably on the infrastructure side (for example traffic mess at the entrance of main stations). However, up to now, NTV operated only two daily pairs of trains, and plans to expand that significantly until the end of the year as its 25 AGV trains are delivered by Alstom. NTV is also marketing heavily: for example, they plastered the streets along the Giro d'Italia cycling race with the logo of their train brand ".Italo".
:: :: TRANSLOHR SALE :: ::
Light rail and metro are expensive to build and often require subsidies to operate, but both have the tendency to cause a lasting change in traffic patterns and public perceptions. The road vehicle lobby tries to confront this with schemes involving special buses, often called "bus rapid transit" (BRT), which are sold as being cheaper but having the same benefits. In truth, BRT usually means lower capacity and less attractive service with higher infrastructure maintenance costs.
In the USA, the promotion of BRT schemes is part of a loud campaign by anti-transit think-tanks which may sound bizarre for European ears. However, there are BRT schemes in Europe, too. In particular in France, where two technologies with vehicles most alike to trams have been tried. In January I reported that the pilot line with Bombardier's TVR system is to be replaced by normal light rail, having been a failure. Now the other system, TransLohr's (introduced here), looks to be in trouble, too. The company was severely behind schedule in delivering vehicles for Paris, resulting in compensation demands, so the company declared bankruptcy on 4 June. But Paris didn't want the extra costs of switching to normal light rail, so the company was saved by a takeover: Alstom and FSI bought it a week later.
:: :: ELECTRIFICATION IN DENMARK :: ::
On 12 June the new left-of-centre government of Denmark announced an investment programme to boost public transport, with a heavy emphasis on electrification schemes. My problem is that looking at the details for the heavy rail part, I see little more concrete than a re-packaging of what the previous government accepted in its last years already: the electrification of a newly constructed line, the line to the planned Fehmarn Belt fixed link to Germany, the shorter line to Esbjerg, and the purchase of electric multiple units. But, at least they show commitment to these goals.
:: :: DIABOLO OPENING :: ::
In Belgium, the so-called Diabolo connection and a connected new line was inaugurated on 7 June. The new line (introduced here), which is built in the middle of a highway, doubles capacity on the route to the north of Brussels. The Diabolo connection, a PPP project, connects it to the existing rail station at the airport, turning the latter into a through station and creating the possibility of circular local services.
:: :: HANZELIJN TRIALS :: ::
The Netherlands is the country in Europe with the highest population density and also has one of the the highest railway network densities, yet the country is about to finish another new conventional mainline. How come? Land Reclamation. In the fifties, north-east of Amsterdam, Eastern Flevoland was laid dry in the inland sea. It was initially served by a branchline. However, Eastern Flevoland offers a more direct route towards Groningen and other cities in the north-east, and such a connection would also relieve the busy eastern line from Amsterdam to Apeldoorn, Enschede and northern Germany. So that branchline gets an extension to Zwolle on the other shore, the Hanzelijn (Hanze Line, see below on map adapted from Thorsten Büker), while the existing line is upgraded.
The Hanzelijn, which is to open at the end of the year, is equipped with both the Dutch ATB-EG and the international ETCS Level 2 train protection systems, the latter for a top speed of 200 km/h. Recently, that speed was reached during the commissioning of the track with an ICE-3 high-speed train borrowed by infrastructure manager Prorail from DB.
In related news, Nomad tells me the Dutch government decided to migrate signalling on all lines to some version of ETCS in ten years. That makes the Netherlands the fifth country (after Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and Luxembourg) to make this decision.
:: :: :: :: ::
Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.