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Rail News Blogging #13

by DoDo Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 07:51:39 AM EST

Continuing after one and half months, this time I'll do a rail news blogging with paraphrases only. The six themes I selected could all run under the title "not according to plans": Dutch & German regulators vs. interoperability, Czech open access and international trains, no fare increases in India, South Korea's new test train, SNCF orders more TGVs, and Austria's long-delayed tunnel project starts. Some connected news are added. Let's start with regulators vs. interoperability:

The recent rise in international railfreight transport was in large part from traffic to and from marine ports, and one key factor in this growth was the use of multi-system electric locomotives that can pass system changes at borders. However, uncoordinated actions by national regulators can still stop them in their tracks. Regular readers will know about the troubled history of ETCS, the train protection system which the EU would like to see replacing national systems, for increased interoperability. One of the problems was the on-going development of its standards, forcing expensive upgrades of existing equipment. This hit again now.

Dutch regulator ILT long complained that the software of one loco type (TRAXX, made by Bombardier) was not compliant with the latest version of the ETCS standard, and set 31 March as the final deadline for a switch to the updated software. However, Germany's regulator EBA saw deficiencies in the new version, delaying approval until 9 May. Thus, for the 38 days in-between, no software was approved in both countries, and the TRAXX locos for port traffic could only run on either side of the border.

This is only a particularly grotesque example of authorisation problems. I often bemoan EU rail liberalisation policy, but it is no factor here. What could be done? Some train operators are lobbying for the idea to have the European Rail Agency (currently the manager of interoperability rules) supersede national regulators as a single European approval authority, but IMHO that's a dangerous idea: as long as local specialities in infrastructure and traffic rules persist, ERA could overlook local problems, some of which could impact safety. I think it would be enough to make ERA into an arbiter with teeth that can intervene in specific cases to coordinate national regulators and to overrule them if they fail to cooperate.


The EU (for cross-border traffic) and some of its member states (for domestic traffic) deregulated long-distance passenger rail transport by the principle of open access. I argued that this model can negatively impact overall service, because new competitors rush for the profits on the busiest lines, making it difficult for the incumbent to maintain the rest of its network; and pointed at the Czech example. Now there are further effects of that case.

A month ago, former state monopolist Czech Railways (ČD) abandoned plans to buy railjet trainsets for its international services, choosing to focus resources on domestic services. At the same time, its private rival RegioJet teamed up with German Railways (DB) to take over Hamburg–Berlin–Prague services from December. The future of direct Hamburg–Budapest (and, I presume, Berlin–Vienna) services is up in the air. Meanwhile, the privately-run Nuremberg–Prague train services will end because DB competed with long-distance buses...


Neoliberalism still doesn't win everywhere every time. In India, train fares haven't been changed in nine years. So rail minister Dinesh Trivedi of the Trinamool Congress party thought it's time to improve ticket revenues, and implement a few more IMF-friendly reforms in the process. But he faced such intense opposition in his own party that he resigned on 18 March. His successor scrapped most of the plans, saying it would place too much extra burden on the common man who already faces rising prices for essential goods.


17 May saw the roll-out of high-speed test train HEMU-430X in South Korea (photo below from linked Railway Gazette article).

In every respect, this train represents a national ambition to be at the cutting edge of technology (and get export orders).

  • The train was developed as a joint project of manufacturer Hyundai Rotem, government research institutions and universities, with a large budget for a quite wide-ranging research effort.
  • The parties involved bet everything on this train overshadowing the negative press their previous product, the KTX-II "Sancheon" (an improved clone of the French TGV) received for its teething problems.
  • It follows international trends in making the switch from tractor heads (power cars at each end) to distributed traction (underfloor motors in multiple cars), and using new materials and electronics.
  • The train was re-named from HEMU-400X to HEMU-430X, with the number in the name representing planned top test speed in km/h, even after the Wenzhou train crash in China.

Some explanation on the last point: originally, HEMU-400X was to result in a series train with a cutting-edge top speed of 350 km/h in regular traffic. But then China began its mad dash for 380 km/h service, and by a year and half ago, they looked close to the goal. So to keep up, the South Korean consortium boosted the planned test and regular top speeds by 30 resp. 20 km/h. The project name was changed (and painted over on the prototype) only recently, even though in the meantime, China slowed its trains to 300 km/h in line with its safety re-focus after the Wenzhou crash. The South Korean PR focus on top speed is easy to ridicule, but, whatever will be the actual top speed of the future KTX-III trains, the improvements in efficiency are to be substantial.


French State Railways SNCF is currently taking delivery of 55 new double-deck TGVs capable of cross-border operation (the first few now operate Frankfurt–Marseilles services), and had an option for 30 more. On 2 April however, manufacturer Alstom announced that SNCF ordered 40. Alstom also announced that they stop suing over Eurostar's order of trains from rival maker Siemens (a lawsuit that was based on spurious technical arguments over Channel Tunnel safety regulations). SNCF is the main owner of Eurostar – so the extra ten Euroduplex trains obviously represent a consolation prize.

Two news related both to this and the cross-border locos vs. national regulators problem:

  • Eurotunnel's freight train operator subsidiary Europorte got the approval of both French and British authorities for the running of container-carrying wagons on their networks, and ran an Antwerp–London test train on 21–22 May. An efficient service however would be hauled by a single loco on the entire journey, but authorities drag their feet.
  • The first loco type to get approval on both sides of, as well as in the Chunnel could be Alstom's Prima II, a prototype of which is to conduct trials in the Chunnel this autumn.


All the rail traffic from Vienna to south Austria and on to north-east Italy and Slovenia currently passes the historic Semmering Pass Line. Plans to reduce travel times and increase capacity with a Semmering Base Tunnel were drawn up in the early eighties. However, the project was blocked for decades, in particular by the state of Lower Austria, with the argument that construction would endanger aquifers. There was truth in that, especially considering the Austrian construction business preference for the drill-and-blast method, but prior exploration with boreholes can reduce the danger and Lower Austria saw no problems in the completion of a parallel road project, so I had my suspicions about the motivation.

At any rate, a few years ago, the proposal of a new tunnel alignment brought the breakthrough: the 27.3 km tunnel is to avoid the main aquifers on a wide S-shaped alignment (which, despite the "base tunnel" name, also helps to scale a significant level difference between the two portals). Lower Austria finally gave its approval, and ground-breaking took place on 25 April. The project is still not free from controversy: some environmentalists think that the new route is still endangering too many aquifers, the go-ahead was given before Styria state's approval for their part of the new route (though that's the less problematic section), and after all the delays the budget ballooned to €3.1 billion.

Construction is to go on until 2024 (with tunnel boring in 2014–2021), when journey times are to reduce by 40 minutes. With the tunnel, high-capacity tracks would be complete between Venice and Vienna, but it would be on Italy and Austria to attract traffic to the new lines, something especially the former didn't strive for in the recent past. On a related matter: further west, on the Brenner route, after the EU court struck down a law of Tyrol state limiting road truck traffic, the number of trucks using piggyback trains fell by 50%...

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Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

The extra photo shows the train of the 600-mm narrow-gauge museum railway of Kemence in Hungary as it picks up an extra car: lots of passengers despite the rain. The train started with an 18-minute delay and the struggling loco added a few more minutes, but no one cared.

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

by DoDo on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 07:49:23 AM EST
Just for fun: an (accelerated) video of the arrival to St Lazare Station in Paris...

by Xavier in Paris on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 01:42:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
fascinating.  Like caterpillars speed up.  They also look remarkably like cars at traffic lights.  I wonder if with computers we could actually reduce the interlocking time to realtime and avoid any of the stopping.  That would have a big impact on the efficiency.
by njh on Tue Jun 5th, 2012 at 02:06:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The stopped trains over to the right are probably empty and being cleaned, serviced and/or waiting out a time buffer before departure. You need time buffers, because without them delays cascade. Which means you need to have trains standing still and empty on a side track some of the time. If you don't have that, Bad Things happen to your ability to keep your schedule.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 04:37:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The stopped trains on the right do indeed look like depot runs, although they look like intermediate stops (it's 50x accelerated so most trains stop only for a few minutes, and continue rather than reverse towards the station).

OTOH I think in-service trains stopping just outside a terminal station is near-unavoidable: when a departing and an arriving train stop at the same platform or their paths cross, a delay for the train scheduled to pass the 'exclusion zone' can delay the other. (Still, when I was in Gare St. Lazare, which by number of calling trains is like the busiest commuter rail station in the world, I don't remember seeing a single example.)

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

by DoDo on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 09:29:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I can confirm that the area on the right is a depot, used to prepare the trains to the St Lazare station.

The exact place is called "Pont Cardinet". There is a huge real estate project in the area, that would involve covering the tracks, but I don't really know the exact perimeter.

by Xavier in Paris on Fri Jun 8th, 2012 at 09:03:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the characteristic interlocking time is in the seconds, while the time needed for trains to clear conflicting paths can be in the minutes. But when the path conflicts only concerns a crossing, reducing interlocking time would indeed help.

On the open line, of course a moving block system would help. (On commuter lines with a low number of train types, it is easier to implement, see the success of CBTC vs. the not even in pilot stage ETCS Level 3.)

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

by DoDo on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 09:41:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I strongly suspect that this has already been worked out in mathematical detail and practical implementation by members of the MIT model railroad club. I've worked for a few of them in "real life" and the club seems to be a filter that selects for practical genius.


by asdf on Wed Jun 6th, 2012 at 01:46:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent, DoDo, as usual.

I would be interested in an article at some point about the relative economics of steep grades versus tunnels in high speed rail. The reason is that the corridor of immediate interest to me is the one between Colorado Springs and Denver. The old-time rail route bypasses a series of high hills, but when the Interstate highway was built they took a more direct route with a much more severe limiting grade. As a result of the new highway route, development since then has been largely in the highway corridor, so a passenger rail system would preferably follow that route.

I have not been able to find a profile drawing that shows the difficulty, but it is the 22 km section between Castle Rock (1897 m), Castle Pines (1999 m), and Lone Tree (1813 m) on this map. These elevations don't really give the whole story; there is a series of quite steep up-and-down grades on the highway route. The old rail route bypasses the region by heading along U.S. highway 85, northwest from Castle Rock to the Ken Caryl area and then into Denver.

I just noticed that Google Maps now shows the rail lines, using light gray lines with cross hatching if you zoom in close enough. You can see the two parallel rights-of-way in this area, (one built by the Denver and Rio Grande and one by the Santa Fe.

by asdf on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 12:32:48 PM EST
by asdf on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 12:33:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
http://www.panoramio.com/photo_explorer#view=photo&position=177&with_photo_id=67345696&o rder=date_desc&user=6718700

(I presume your camera is fairly slow and the cars were moving forwards through the frame?)

by njh on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 01:57:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's the focal plane shutter, if a film camera, or an artifact of how the sensor scanning works if a digital camera...
by asdf on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 06:05:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Large sensor digital cameras also have focal plane shutter causing this looks.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2012 at 05:52:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I recall that the two routes are still used, one as an up and the other as a down.  And all that runs along them are mile long coal trains.
by njh on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 01:54:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, that's right. It's MOSTLY coal trains, but there is also a fair amount of regular freight traffic, military traffic (tanks on flatcars), and the occasional circus train or special event passenger train.

by asdf on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 06:09:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you think of intermediate stops on a 22 km section, then you think of high-speed rail only in the US sense ("Emerging HSR" and "Regional HSR"). Still, the 4% limit on European HSR lines is a good frame of reference if the line is to be electrified (if not, 2.5% is more like it). Checking Interstate Highway standards, the limit there is 6%, so if the Castle Rock-Castle Pines-Lone Tree section reaches that, you'll need at least earthen ramps/cuttings.

As for the economics of steep grades versus tunnels, huh. Too many factors!

  • Steep grades mean higher energy costs (even if electric trains use regenerative braking downhill).
  • Steep grades also mean longer travel times and thus less passengers and thus less revenue.
  • In urban areas, even if you build along a highway, noise is a concern, and you may need to build protection walls.
  • On the surface along a highway, you need to pass over or under highway exits or crossing roads.
  • Along a highway, lateral and vertical minimum curve radius also counts, the rail line may need to deviate from the highway at tight curves and sudden changes from negative to positive grades or vice versa.
  • Tunnel construction costs depend on geology.
  • Tunnel construction costs also depend on fire safety standards, especially for longer tunnels (which you also don't want if the line is not electrified).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 02:52:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Right, on this stretch there would not have to be any stops. The issue would be the severe grades. I suppose you're right, though, that a true high speed train would more likely just follow the old grade, which is somewhat roundabout but not at all steep...
by asdf on Sun Jun 3rd, 2012 at 06:12:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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