Mon Feb 27th, 2012 at 07:55:16 AM EST
Freight traffic on modern railways can be broadly categorised in three types:
- Trainload traffic: a train carries the same cargo of a single customer, and all cars are loaded at the starting point and unloaded at the endpoint. (Examples: transports of raw materials from a mine to a factory; transport of cars from a car factory to a port.)
- Intermodal traffic: containers or trailers usually also travel on trains that only load/unload at the end points of the journey, but the cargo belongs to different customers and is transferred to other modes of transport to reach different final destinations (or vice versa).
- Wagonload traffic: trains consist of wagons carrying the cargo of different customers with different departure points and destinations.
A mixed train composed of at least four sections climbs towards Semmering in Austria
The first two types ensure large volumes of traffic, however, in the entire transport sector, they only constitute niches. Wagonload traffic however, due to its need for the time- and energy-intensive shunting movements (to assemble, re-assemble [marshalling] and separate trains), has difficulties competing with road transport. For a significant modal shift from road to rail, you'd need to change that.
I criticised the EU's rail liberalisation strategy for not delivering the kind of competition and drawing of new capital promised, while bringing new problems and not really boosting traffic. Now a new study of wagonload traffic showed that
- the overall development of wagonload traffic since liberalisation has been negative,
- virtually no competition developed, and
- the direction is towards cooperation rather than competition of rail transport companies.
I recently reviewed the experience of railfreight liberalisation in The Dawn Of Open Access (1/2); to sum up the key criticisms:
- where and when there was growth, it was largely due to technical improvements and global economic trends boosting international traffic, not liberalisation;
- this growth masked traffic lost due to 'streamlining' in preparation for competition;
- the competition that materialised wasn't the spread of bold risk-taking new entrants bringing new capital, but the expansion of the most solid publicly owned incumbents into the 'home territories' of others (because railfreight is a business with high financial risks and thus strong merger pressures);
- the various parties involved battled each other not just with rates and quality of service but with all available tricks, most of which were made possible by the separation of infrastructure, passenger and freight operations;
- the new system also brought new bureaucracies and complexities which reduced efficiency and safety, while costs were saved on workers, with added negative safety effect.
The second point is largely about wagonload traffic. An example is German Railway DB's "MORA C" programme from 2000, which in the next two years reduced the number of loading points by more than a third (the original plans even intended a 50% reduction). According to Alexander Vogt, who reviewed the development of the German wagonload market for his doctoral thesis and got to publish a summary of that in the February issue of the International Railway Journal, only 10% of these were taken over by other operators.
More startlingly, according to Vogt, while 25% of the wagonload cargo carried on DB trains started its journey in trains of local or industrial railways (who handed the wagons over to DB), only 3% of all wagonload cargo in Germany is carried on its entire journey without DB's participation. That is, intra-mode competition is virtually non-existent, instead, DB saves costs by cooperating with low-cost local operators. Even overall, 60% of the traffic conducted by operators other than DB is done as subcontractor of DB!
Vogt also argues that competition is not merely virtually non-existent in the present, but undesirable in the future: to increase wagonload traffic, costs can be cut by reducing infrastructure access and tax charges and by increasing the efficiency and cohesion of the existing network, not by adding redundancies.
Railfreight is most competitive over distances of a few hundred kilometres or more, which in Europe often includes the crossing of borders. In this field, too, cooperation rather than competition can help – in this context Vogt mentions Xrail, an initiative of seven major established operators to improve wagonload traffic, launched in 2010 (discussed f.e. in this IRJ article from a year ago).
The end of a mixed train heads into the sunset after having passed from Hungary to Slovakia on the border bridge near Szob
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