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The glorious comeback of the freight train

by bastiaan Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:02:52 PM EST

I read an article with this inspiring title in the Dutch magazine for professionals, Intermediair. Dutch railways were privatised about 13 years ago, by splitting up the NS (Dutch Railways) into NS reizigers (passenger transportation), Prorail (infrastructure) and Railion (cargo). It soon became apparent that full privatization of passenger services was unrealistic, so all main lines are still a monopoly for NS. In general, people are not to impressed with the results of privatisation, but I (daily long distance train user for the last 6 years) think that in terms of service, punctuality and prices the situation would not much different if there had been no privatisation. However, rail cargo is a very different story. In the last ten years before privatisation, there was no growth in cargo transportation by rail. Since 1995, everybody could become a cargo carrier. Cargo increased from 3000000000 tonkilometers in 1996 to 5000000000 tonkilometers in 2006, a 66% increase, while transport by road only increased by 20% in the same period. At the same time, rail transport prices have fallen by 22%. Punctuality of cargo delivery has also increased.

According to the article, cross-border traffic is still a problem. Not only do different counties use their own signals, they also have their own currents (Netherlands 1500 Volt, Belgium 3000 Volt, Germany 15000 Volt and France 25000 Volt). Also, the drivers must speak the local language, since there is no international language like for air traffic. Although Belgium and France officially allow competition for rail cargo, it is difficult to impossible for foreign companies to get a licence.

The article concludes:

While privatisation may not always be the Egg of Columbus, it seems to work fine for rail cargo. In counties where the traditional state company is still responsible like France, rail cargo is declining, while in countries where private companies are running the cargo trains, like the Netherlands and Germany, rail cargo is growing. If the rest of Europe will allow and encourage real competition, rail cargo can take over a significant market from inland shipping and especially road transportation.

The article has little to say about the labour conditions, except noticing that Railion is now running the same amount of cargo with only half the people.
I'd be interested to hear about rail cargo in other European countries, but I think an integrated European rail cargo network would be good for the environment and would make economic sense. The Netherlands just finished a 160 km dedicated cargo line from Rotterdam to Germany, which will use 25000 Volt (the new European standard), to relieve the pressure on the overcrowded passenger lines. So how is rail cargo doing in your country?

Rail freight is doing great here, it's increasing and it's profitable. It's (exclusively?) run by state-owned Green Cargo (yes, it's got an English name... grrr...). They even do cross-border (all the way to the Netherlands via Denmark and Germany!) just-in-time delivery for Volvo.

Rail freight has always been very successful in the US, far more so than in Europe actually.

If I remember correctly (DoDo?).

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 07:34:45 PM EST
And trains do 19 % of all domestic transportation work, which in Europe is second only to Austria (take that France!).

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 07:40:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
40 % of US cargo is shipped by train, which is just as large a share as it was 30 or 40 years ago. But then they only allow trucks to carry 36.000 kg on roads, while it's 44.000 kg in the EU and 60.000 kg in Sweden and Finland.

US train freight is ten times as big as EU train freight, measured in ton-kilometres and it's run by profitable, publicly traded private companies.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 07:51:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]

  1. no passenger transport is run on most of their lines;
  2. correspondingly, their infrastructure is rather run-down;
  3. the US railways could increase the cross section and axleweight of their cars (and thus carry much more cargo with the same length trains) and run longer trains with relatively little difficulty: less buildings than can be torn down more cheaply if they are in the way, less long and old tunnels to widen, already historically higher axleloads, less problems with stations and block lengths;
  4. railfreight is more profitable over longer distances, and in Europe, borders (both in regulatory and technical sense) pose big problems;
  5. the US settlement structure further suits railways: most transport is along longer routes between a few large centres, while Europe is more decentralised.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 04:40:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes and one more thing, much of the transportation work, several tens of percents (especially in ton-kilometres) is really optional as it is coal that is shipped across the continent, from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming(?) where coal is low-sulfur to the consumers in the Northeast and Midwest.

In France no one needs to ship coal...

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 05:06:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
5b. Since railfreight dominates transcontinental and ports-to-major-inland-cities transports, the very long distances involved boost the ton-kilometre numbers.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 05:23:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm surprised by that, but I suppose my shock is largely attributable to the miserable state of passenger rail in America.  Thinking about it, though, I suppose it would be difficult to imagine major inland cities like Atlanta and Dallas surviving with it.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 03:13:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Freight rail has been abandoned a long time ago in France. The SNCF had this very spectacular showoff project, the TGV I think it was called, that was so good at bringing customer traffic, subsidies and buzz, that the company abandoned other aspects of its business, and essentially cut off the hook on its freight train branch, which became a zombie administration, unable to have reasonable scheduling (important in these days of just-in-time transportation). Oh, and trucking is a very strong lobby in France, able to stop the country a couple times every decade.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 08:08:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rail freight is doing great here, it's increasing and it's profitable. It's (exclusively?) run by state-owned Green Cargo

No more exclusively, but IIRC still around 75%. And while railfreight is increasing, its market share doesn't.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 04:52:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think market share has fallen marginally in the last decades, from 21 % to 19 %.

By the way, more useless transportation knowledge: Sweden is the country in the world which is most reliant on the manufacture of heavy trucks, and a fifth of all trucks manufactured today are made by Swedish corporations.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 05:11:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Notes on the sidelines, part I.

First of all, while traffic did increase significantly (from 0.72 billion ton-kilometres in national and 3.02 in international traffic in 1995 to 1.03/4.71 billion by 2003), ex NS Cargo/Railion Nederland still carries the bulk of railfreight in the Netherlands (70%), and Railion is effectively the freight branch of the German state railways (though AFAIK NS still has a share in it) -- not the best example of private vs. state.

Second, even if the article tells of problems for cross-border traffic, from my above numbers, it should be obvious that the latter traffic (above all transports between Dutch ports and German producers/buyers) already dominates, and even showed higher growth. In fact, one could say that it was the growth of cross-border traffic that pulled the domestic services with them (via synergies and enough profit to invest), what's more, the merger into Railion brought the plus that a lot of German freight diesel locomotives (some of which were pulled off newly electrified lines, though more from closed branchlines and marshalling yards...) ended up in Railion Nederland's hands, reinvigorating local traffic (shunters, small diesels) as well as cross-border traffic without changing locomotives (big ex-East-German Russian diesels).

I will only submit that ACTS and the German privates also focused on the profitable ports to industrial centres in Germany and beyond traffic. But overall, I think most of the boom is down to the port's boom, and as for the rest, the same growth would have been possible if only NS Cargo is merged into Railion to turn the latter a bi-state company, or even if national railways remained but governments had chosen to actively push the same border-crossing measures Railion did.  And at the same time, while the Netherlands was lucky to be on highly profitable lines, in the entirety of Germany, Netherlands and Denmark (which can be taken together because Railion dominates each), the picture is ore problematic -- neglect and underfunding and closures were simply relayed to other areas.

On a more broad note, in continental Europe, and especially in the Switzerland many bring up as example, a lot of so-called private railways are actually majority-owned by public bodies -- state, region, city.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 04:32:08 AM EST
More notes.

You mention voltages and the new freight line Betuwelijn. Here I first add that the Dutch 1.5 kV and Belgian 3 kV are direct current (DC), while the German 15 kV is a 16.7 Hz alternating current (AC), and the French 25 kV is a 50 Hz AC linked to the national grid. 25 kV is no European standard, it is simply the preferred AC system to switch to in coutries with DC electrification, and AC is generally better than DC due to higher power delivery.

Now, the Betuwelijn is a problematic animal because it is not compatible with anything nearby. It will serve intra-Netherlands and Germany-Netherlands traffic, and neither country uses 25 kV/50 Hz. It has the new all-European signalling system. The effect of these choices is that only multi-system locomotives fitted for three different voltage and signalling systems can run on them. The only company that already has these is Railion, so competitors have cried foul (see for example this [in German]).

A final issue is one I mentioned in the Britain's slandered transport system?... diary: the profitability of private train operators is usually ensured by cutting back infrastructure investments and/or setting low infrastructure use prices for the operators. In the Netherlands, the infrastructure problem was noticed in the last few years, and instead of going the British way into chaos, significant rate increases were chosen/discussed. The new privates protested this loudly.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 04:32:21 AM EST
Interesting post. I wonder what the problems are that make the market for rail cargo 'work' whereas passenger transportation remains problematic (although a 70% market share for the main enterprise as DoDo pointed out may indicate otherwise, OTOH, it may still be offering a competitive service). I'd guess at the following:

  • There is more 'cross-modal' competition in the cargo market. Goods don't care how they are transported, whereas people may generally prefer sitting in cars, or whatever. Transport by boat, at least, is mostly not a option for them (except when the journey itself is the destination)
  • On the other hand, rail cargo has obvious advantages over other modes of transportation. It is faster than transport by ship, can move greater volumes at once than road or plane, and is cheaper than transport by plane. For people, the volume aspect is not something you can compete on. They generally move alone or in small groups. The only thing you can compete on is price, travel experience and timeliness.

The newly completed dedicated cargo line is not the proudest project in Dutch history. I do think that it might work because the Rhine may tend to dry up in the summer more often due to global warming and gas prices are going up for road transport/the sector will in the future have to deal with an 'lkw maut' in Holland as well.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 06:04:26 PM EST
To emphasize my point about rail cargo not doing so great in other parts of Netherlands+Germany+Denmark:

  1. in the last 2-3 years, Railion conducted a big cull of freight access points (the part in Germany: the "MORA C" plan, Denmark suffered something similar), focusing on keeping only large customers who'd order full-train transports. Some of these have been taken over by privates, some haven't, and at least in Germany, some couldn't be even if privates would have been willing, because DB made access impossible.

  2. In no small part because of this policy, on one hand, Railion reduced losses, on the other hand, overall rail freight volumes got a damper.

  3. The following is a doomed strategy: abandon local access points and count on customers electing to send their cargo to the railway with trucks. Why two more reloadings when the trucks can go all the way? This didn't kept Railion's (integrated-railway) precursors from trying it, resulting in some nice new empty combined transport terminals. (Note: this issue, like most issues for railfreight, is one where decisions on infrastructure and operation are closely interlinked.)

  4. On a broader note, competition introduced a foreseeable, incurable but overseen problem: that of dominant market players (here: Railion) trying to thwart rivals even at the cost of overall rail market share. Another strong example is Railion's practice to send its old locomotives to scrap metal traders, rather than earn much more from selling them to the privates. Thus the privates either have to buy new locos or buy foreign second-hand locos and go through the lengthy and costy process of getting permission to run them on German tracks.

  5. You mention the road toll for lorries, that was a significant help, but apparently not enough.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 06:34:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The 3rd point, I think, is especially worth noting. This is because the EU's transportation policy has moved from a 'modal shift' policy to a 'cross modality' policy, which might lead to more such nonsense.

On point 4, this policy seems to be silly. Maybe there are psychological motives at work?

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Thu Apr 12th, 2007 at 06:45:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On the Betuwelijn, it won't start to really work before the German section from the Ruhr area to the Dutch border is upgraded and three-tracked (presently the capacity is just 3 freight trains an hour!), and the Dutch section from the border to the end of the Betuwelijn is converted to German 16.7Hz/15kV voltage. Current plans foresee this to happen by 2013, but the German side dragged its feet several times (budget cuts and all), originally it should have been ready last year...

This is another example of how much infrastructure counts and is linked to operation.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 06:42:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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