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.
:: :: CZECH OPEN ACCESS AND INTERNATIONAL TRAINS :: ::
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...
:: :: NO FARE INCREASES IN INDIA :: ::
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.
:: :: SOUTH KOREA'S NEW TEST TRAIN :: ::
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.
:: :: SNCF ORDERS MORE TGVS :: ::
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.
:: :: AUSTRIA'S LONG-DELAYED TUNNEL PROJECT STARTS :: ::
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.