Sun Jun 30th, 2013 at 11:54:57 AM EST
The themes are: privatisation, international/intermodal freight, low-cost innovation in urban rail, and new high-speed infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Romania wanted to privatise CFR Marfă, the freight branch of its state railway, but on 15 May, the transport ministry rejected all three bids. I commented that "They still think this doesn't have to be a fire-sale." Indeed two weeks later, they resumed the process with the same bidders. Why? Because sale by June was a promise to the IMF and the IMF stuck to the deadline.
Things continued like a comedy: in the week before the IMF deadline, the two bidders with foreign capital withdrew for various reasons, and the sole bidder left standing was named winner – pending EU approval due to the winner's then 70% market share...
Here is a CFR Marfă loco and train far from home, on the way from Budapest to Slovakia:
On the same day CFR Marfă's majority was sold, in Bulgaria, where similar freight branch privatisation plans were hampered by anti-austerity protests and a bank freeze on the railway, the privatisation was called off by the new Socialist government.
Elsewhere, Argentina is going in the other direction. Back when the country was a neoliberal model in the nineties, the government privatised all railways on a concessional basis. The main result was a catastrophic neglect of maintenance. The government began to take back railways from troubled operators, and now revoked the concessions of the largest freight operator, owned by Brazilian logistics giant ALL.
- To reduce freight train noise, a key factor is braking: conventional brakes use cast iron ("P10") brake blocks pressed to the wheel surfaces, which not only produces a screeching sound when braking, but increases rolling noise (the dominant noise component at normal train speeds) by roughing up the surface. This can be solved with composite ("K") brake blocks – in new wagons; but, to be able retrofit the hundreds of thousands of existing wagons, you need a material that produces roughly the same friction forces as cast iron. This so-called "LL" brake block was very hard to find, it took a decade (much longer than foreseen) and multi-year tests with a dedicated train all across Europe. But now the LL brake block has been approved and first wagons were equipped.
- At long last, seven years after the first trial run, a regular direct freight shuttle was launched between Germany and Turkey. Transit traffic can now also use the second Danube bridge between Bulgaria and Romania, opened 14 June. Now if only gaps in electrification would be eliminated...
- The austerian governments of the Iberian Peninsula 'compensated' service and investment cutbacks by moving ahead with freight corridor projects. One runs across Northern Spain towards northern Portugal, with a major gap in electrification on the Spanish side of the border. Now for the half of this section until Salamanca, the works have been awarded. Meanwhile, on the Mediterranean Corridor, the re-gauging/dual-gauging project (see RNB20) is moving forward with first tenders awarded (covering the Barcelona and Valencia ends of the line).
- CargoBeamer is one of the novel systems which attempt to make truck transport more efficient (see description with diagram). This one saves space and accelerates loading/unloading with side-shifting pockets (so that trucks don't have to drive along the entire train and above the bogies). Regular trains were launched this month, between the first two terminals in Wolfsburg, Germany (on Volkswagen premises) and Bettembourg, Luxembourg. At the latter, there is transfer to the trains of the rival Modalohr system (which has rotating pockets).
- Wagonload traffic, when different cars of a freight train have different origin and destination, was the strongest-shrinking freight sector in recent years in Europe, for various policy reasons (see Wagonload traffic: the market won't deliver). Xrail is an initiative of European former state railways to change that by international cooperation. This could now have practical results in the form of joint capacity management, announced for 2015, and they complemented their network with a key region, adding terminals in Northern Italy.
Low-cost innovation in urban rail
Vinci and CAF launch low-cost light rail | International Railway Journal
Vinci, France, together with CAF, Spain, have launched Nextram, a light rail package which could be 30-40% cheaper than conventional systems for cities with a population of between 150,000 and 200,000 which up to now could only afford a bus solution. Nextram, which has been developed during the last two years, comprises two main innovations. One is a double-layer concrete trackbed which is only 50cm deep combined with low-height rails. This enables the track to be installed in sections to minimise disruption during construction.
The other main cost-saving initiative is to use metre-gauge uni-directional LRVs. As these only have one cab and doors on one side, they will be cheaper to build and maintain than dual-direction vehicles.
I'm a bit at a loss at why this is considered innovation. There are several European tram networks that are metre-gauge and/or uni-directional, for example Antwerp.
Alstom launches modular light metro system | International Railway Journal
IRJ at the 60th UITP Congress Geneva: Alstom has developed a modular light metro system called Axonis which is designed to be quick to build and economic to construct and operate.
It includes a modular viaduct which has a width of 6.8m and a height of up to 14m, Alstom's Appitrack slab track system which was originally developed for rapid installation on light rail lines, Alstom's new Urbalis Fluence simplified CBTC for driverless operation, and a power supply system designed to reuse 99% of braking energy. A 750V dc third-rail electrification system is envisaged.
There have been several novel light metro systems over the past 2–4 decades which were developed with view to lower costs, but they either failed or were modified for higher capacity (and cost). So I'm not too expectant, but the technologies included could be useful anyway.
New high-speed infrastructure
The latest addition to the Spanish high-speed network, the south-eastern extension Albacete–Alicante, was opened on 18 June. Although service starts with a fall-back train control system (ETCS Level 2 is still being commissioned) and thus with a lower top speed, journey times reduce by 50 minutes, with another 15 minutes off once ETCS L2 is ready. What's interesting about this project is that part of it was originally built in broad gauge, as a major cut-off of the old Madrid–Valencia line.
In related news, in the first four months since the introduction of flexible ticketing in Spain (see RNB20), high-speed ridership grew 14% year-on-year, boosting seat occupation to 75%. Ticket sales even grew 18%. Considering the recession, this is a success; but considering that the traffic boost was 38% in the first two weeks, the effect is decaying.
After another six months of delay compared to plans, 9 June saw the opening of the new low level of Bologna Centrale station for high-speed trains, along the cross-city tunnel opened a year ago and used only by non-stop Milan–Rome trains up to now. Italy is facilitating the high-speed rail passage of all urban areas with separate projects called "urban nodes". In Bologna, only the reconstruction on the surface remains to be finished; other than that, after the recent station opening in Turin, only Naples (
20142015) and Florence (2016) are still in the works.
The country worst-hit by austerity (both in general and on railways), Greece, was working on a complete upgrade/replacement of its most important line between Athens and Thessaloniki with a modern double-track electrified railway for 200–250 km/h. The combination of insufficiently researched difficult geology (highly deformable clay and strong shear forces...) and inexperienced construction firms led to major trouble on the single biggest superstructure: the 9,036 m, bi-tube Kallidromo tunnel, south of Lamia (and near Thermopylae). Construction first started in 1997, but it had to be abandoned in 2002. After re-tendering three times, the second attempt started in 2006, with opening planned for 2010. But completion needed a third tender for additional works in 2012, and this year the first tube of the tunnel finally holed through on 22 May.
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