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Rail News Blogging #21

by DoDo Wed Mar 13th, 2013 at 02:51:22 AM EST

I continue the catch up with the news of the last three months on the subject of cross-border connections, which is a litany of what can go wrong. Let's start with the worst, the Balkans, where the last two and a half decades saw the near-elimination of international passenger trains:

  • First there were the Croatian and Bosnian Wars and sanctions in the first half of the nineties.
  • Then there was the NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999.
  • Then austerity-hit Greece cancelled all international trains in early 2011.
  • Then at the end of the same year, night trains to Italy were cancelled because national train operator Trenitalia left the partnership.
  • The latest and biggest cull came at the end of last year, when also austerity-hit Croatia cancelled most international services.
  • Worse: the track access charges set by Croatia's infrastructure manager were so high that Serbian State Railways also cancelled its connection to Sarajevo, which used Croatian tracks in transit (hat tip to Migeru per email).

The rail part of Croatia's post-independence transport infrastructure policy was always a strange mix. While the fact that most money was poured into new or restored road infrastructure fit into a regional (and global) trend, there were signs of ambition: pre-war lines and train services were restored quickly with propagandistic effect, the line to the port of Rijeka got extensive maintenance when it was switched from DC to AC voltage, detailed plans of a parallel new high-performance line were drawn up, and domestic rolling stock manufacturing was re-established. However, at least in the last few years, maintenance must have been cut back to near zero, with predictable results. Those now cancelled international trains regularly ran hours late (as I noted in a warning last year), which surely didn't improve ridership and thus income. This infrastructure deterioration recently reached crisis level: a number of derailments, speed restrictions and domestic service cancellations (again hat tip to Migeru per email).

An express train arrives late on a weed-infested track in the station of Križevci on a summer morning in 2011, also adding another 15 minutes to the already one-hour delay of the Venice–Budapest night train on the single-track line

The situation isn't rosy in Western Europe, either, although for different reasons. Let's take connections between Belgium and the Netherlands. At the end of January, in Flop of the Fyra, Nomad reported that new problems with a long troubled high-speed train type led to their withdrawal from service, and with that, a significant reduction of cross-border connections (only Thalys high-speed trains remained). I noted in a comment that the December start of Fyra service across the border also coincided with the cancellation of (surcharge-free) conventional train services between Brussels and Amsterdam. One would think that these trains could just have been re-started as replacement service for the stopped Fyra. Not so: both the train paths ( = timetable slots) and the trains themselves have been re-assigned to resp. for other services, thus Belgian and Dutch railways were scrambling to put something together. It wasn't until 18 February that a rudimentary and slow Brussels–The Hague service was established.

Let's move back south, to the border of Italy and Austria. At the end of last year, Munich–Rome night trains were threatened because Italian infrastructure manager RFI got serious about a 2007 EU regulation regarding the selective control of door locks (used to unlock doors only on the platform side), requiring full compliance from the start of this year, and German sleeper coaches weren't compliant. Since then, I read that the real issue was that Trenitalia implemented the regulation on its rolling stock (including the locos hauling the night trains from the border) using a non-standard locomotive–train interface. At any rate, the night trains were saved by a temporary agreement – but local trains fared worse. The transit trains connecting the Austrian cities of Innsbruck and Lienz via South Tyrol (using both cross-border links) were replaced by buses, part of the train services re-started three weeks later.

The route of the above-mentioned night trains, the Brenner Route, sees heavy freight traffic on both road and rail. The connection is to be accelerated and upgraded with the 55 km Brenner Base Tunnel (64 km with the mid-tunnel connection to the existing Innsbruck bypass), which is in the state of advanced preparatory works (exploratory and access tunnels, launch caverns for the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) of the main tunnels). The BBT may not open before 2025, but, to cope with the increase of traffic, the capacity of the connecting line is to be enhanced all the way to Munich.

Austria already opened the aforementioned Innsbruck bypass in 1994, then continued it with another 40 km of line doubling (mostly in tunnels), and have advanced plans for the remaining 25 km until the border. On the German side, the first 25 km from Munich were quadruple-tracked by 1999. The remaining 70 km until the border, however, only got past declarations of intent with an intergovernmental agreement in June last year. But the German government is dragging its feet even after: on 7 February, German federal transport minister Peter Ramsauer angered Austrian colleagues with a call for a route that stays in Austria as long as possible, to reduce the cost of the German section. Only about 7 km would be saved, but with them, the difficult part: the cross-border section follows the Inn river where it cuts across the northernmost chain of the Alps, meaning tunnels. The route Ramsauer implied would mean a big change of plans: it would be on the opposite side of the river, thus Austria would have to start over with planning and geological exploration on some 40 km.

Another long-troubled cross-border upgrade project concerns the Upper Rhine Line, which connects the Swiss cities of Basel and Schaffhausen but mostly runs on German territory. Electrification would facilitate the use of the line by trans-Alpine freight traffic (to relieve other lines) and passenger transit trains between the two Swiss cities, as well as enhance domestic and cross-border commuter traffic centred on the Swiss cities and local traffic in Germany. However, for years Germany dragged its feet on financing, then NIMBY protests started. At last the tendering of the Schaffhausen end could go ahead last year. However, the financing of the rest was again thrown into limbo by the withdrawal of the canton of Aargau in January. The cantonal government justified their decision with low interest and displeasure with recent Swiss-German intergovernmental agreements. They meant the ones regarding air traffic (that is, the limitation of night flights at Zurich Airport in response to noise pollution complaints from Germany) and taxes (meaning the limited voiding of bank secrecy to tax German tax evaders). The source quoted in the link was the Green member and leader of the cantonal government (which is FPTP-elected yet all five major parties are represented), so I'd be really curious about a detailed justification of this position...

The busiest (and only electrified...) connection between Germany and the Czech Republic, the Dresden–Prague line, follows the Elbe river where it cuts across the Ore Mountains. In the nineties, a frequent piggyback service for road freight was established on the line. You'd think such an environmentally friendly way of transport will get continued support, but no: it was discontinued in 2004, after improvements to the road alternative (the parallel highway and the end of customs controls after the Czech Republic's EU accession), showing the real priorities of transport policy.

On the rail route, there have been only limited upgrades: a quadruple-tracking of the first 17 km from Dresden and straightened curves for 160 km/h on a c. 50 km/h section halfway to Prague. A new line bypassing the scenic but slow border section across the mountains was long in discussion, but without any firm promises. Now there is at least a small step forward: at the end of January, the governments of the Czech Republic and the German state of Saxony requested EU funding for preliminary studies.

View from the train window across the flooding Elbe river at the sandstone walls near Kurort Rathen this February (sorry for the weather- and dirty window-related bad quality)

Seven years ago, in Another Great Game, I called attention to nascent ambitions in Central Asia to create rail links that would also draw transcontinental traffic between East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The February issue of IRJ contains a number of articles about the status of most of these plans, so here is a little overview from north to south (with a map from IRJ below them):

  • The only two routes on which direct China–Europe services materialised both involve the Trans-Siberian: one uses the classic route via Mongolia, the other cuts across north-eastern Kazakhstan (see RNB18).
  • The most ambitious project in 2006, a new standard-gauge line all across Kazakhstan and then south along the Caspian Sea to the Iranian border, has apparently been abandoned due to political risk. But at least the broad-gauge connection along the same route is progressing, with the line along the Caspian Sea across western Turkmenistan nearing completion and the last stretch in central Kazakhstan (Zhezkazgan–Saksaul'skaya) being included in the action plan of the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation Program (see RNB18 again).
  • A second link between China and Kazakhstan, with a gauge-changing station at Korgas, has been opened on 22 December 2012. While its primary role is bilateral for now, it offers a significant short-cut along the existing route to Iran (via eastern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan).
  • Independent Kyrgyzstan doesn't have a rail network worth its name, only links to its neighbours. The country is now trying to attract investors for a central line by emphasizing that it would offer an even shorter route for transcontinental transit traffic, and provide access for mines. The problem: most of it would be in the mountains, requiring expensive superstructure.
  • The cheapest and shortest route would run along the Fergana Valley (that is mostly in Tajikistan) and northern Afghanistan. It could easily be built all standard-gauge (if Afghanistan chooses standard gauge and Tajikistan, another country without a proper network, is fine with mixed-gauge). Of course, this route is also the politically riskiest and thus least likely to be completed any time soon. Still, the eastern end, the Herat–Torbat line that links Afghanistan and Iran, nears the end of construction. (The map below also shows the Tajik border–Kunduz–Mazar-e-Sharif sections as under construction, but I saw no such news.)

All but the first of the above routes continue across Iran, where several domestic construction and upgrade projects are on-going. At Iran's western borders, the situation is less rosy: lines are progressing towards Iraq and Azerbaijan, but not yet across the border, and Lake Van in Turkey forms a gap for now filled by a train ferry, but I suspect the long-planned line circling the lake won't go ahead until the definite end of hostilities with the PKK.

:: :: :: :: ::

In RNB22, I will conclude the catch-up on my three-month backlog with stories on financing, open-access fortunes, and new rolling stock.

:: :: :: :: ::

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

Another sad saga of Italo-Austrian cross-border traffic concerns the line between Udine (gateway to Trieste and Venice and on to Rome) and Villach (gateway to Salzburg and Vienna). The Italian section is named Pontebbana and crosses the first chain of the Alps. In the nineties, the old, scenic, but curve-rich single-track line was replaced in pharaonic fashion: the new 180 km/h double-track line is almost completely in tunnels.

The fun started with the opening of the last section: all the media was told on 26 November 2000 that the new line was completed, which in reality wasn't the case until 19 January 2001 – some smoke-and-mirrors to keep EU subsidies conditional on an opening before the end of 2000. The new alignment was fast for through trains but really bad for local passengers: local trains were killed off, only express trains stopped at the few and badly situated new stations (one of which was closed after just two years). Worse, all day trains were cancelled at the end of 2009. This disgrace persisted until June last year, when a sparse Udine–Villach service was re-established at the behest of the province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

On a summer day in 2012, a freight train hauled by one of Trenitalia's series E655 articulated six-axle locos just departed border station Tarvisio Boscoverde towards Udine. The train is on a 297 m viaduct above the Slizza river, between a 1 km and a 7 km tunnel.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Mar 10th, 2013 at 04:07:41 PM EST
Over the  past week, there have been news about new developments in a number of cases covered in the diary or earlier stories:

  •  In the Netherlands–Belgium cross-border traffic, conventional trains would end again after the resumption of Fyra service on the high-speed line, again leaving smaller cities and low-budget travellers without the rail option. However, The Hague is willing to subsidize The Hague–Brussels services and announced a tender for a two-year franchise. Trains would start running at the timetable change in December 2013.

  • Europe–Asia connections are to be boosted by the creation of a common legal framework, according to an agreement signed by 37 countries. However, key exceptions are Iran and Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is moving forward with its second, 250 km/h Almaty–Astana line by awarding the design&supervision contract to French company Systra.

  • In my 2011 diary on train control systems, I mentioned that the German government is dragging its feet over an international agreement to install the European train control system ETCS along the entire Amsterdam–Milan corridor, because both main options would be unfavourable: ETCS Level 1 (which uses electromagnets in the track for train–track communication) would reduce capacity on already crowded sections while ETCS Level 2 (which uses wireless communication via the separate GSM-R system) would bring almost no capacity increase on the busy sections but would be very expensive on less busy sections, on which legacy interlockings [systems connecting signals and switches] and ETCS-compatible but old wireless equipment (it was installed in the early years of ETCS development and is too weak for current ETCS L2 uses) would have to be replaced. Now, finally, the obvious compromise has been found: the traffic ministry and the infrastructure branch of German Railways DB agreed to install ETCS L2 on busy sections and ETCS L1 on less busy sections. Of course, financing is still to be agreed upon.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Mar 19th, 2013 at 07:12:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
At any rate, the night trains were saved by a temporary agreement - but local trains fared worse.

With no seats, and resulting cancellation of the stops in Trento and Bolzano.

The transit trains connecting the Austrian cities of Innsbruck and Lienz via South Tyrol (using both cross-border links) were replaced by buses

With stops in Italy only on request, and only to drop passengers. In practice, I gather that the Austrian drivers would let people board even if this was against the rules, but when I tried it the bus arrived early and didn't wait.

part of the train services re-started three weeks later.

I think they all did, but there was a short period a while later when a few trains were cancelled. I'm not sure if this was for the same reason.

the capacity of the connecting line is to be enhanced all the way to Munich.

I don't know if this is definite yet, but this is supposed to include a freight bypass of Trento on the other side of the Adige, and a tunnel for the passenger trains into the city.

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sun Mar 10th, 2013 at 05:30:02 PM EST
I think they all did

Checking ÖBB's on-line timetalbe, it seems that's the case, although I find no ÖBB announcement for the re-start of the last services (told to continue as bus in the communique I linked).

I don't know if this is definite yet, but this is supposed to include a freight bypass of Trento on the other side of the Adige, and a tunnel for the passenger trains into the city.

That's the other side of the tunnel. Unlike for the Munich-Wörgl section, there were detailed plans especially for the section between Bolzano and the BBT for years, although I haven't checked the status of those projects for some time.

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

by DoDo on Sun Mar 10th, 2013 at 05:55:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Now I had some time to check it. Looking at official pages on the South Tyrol regional government page and an information site (links in German but both are multilingual sites), both last refreshed years ago, the BBT–Verona quadruple-tracking project as a whole seems stuck, with detailed studies and environmental permissions and some local consultations done but presumably no solid financing yet. The Bolzano Bypass sub-project was tabled to start in 2014, but L'Espresso's overview expects that for 2017, and 2020 for the Trento Bypass.

However, the newest I find for the Trento Bypass is a news at an Italian rail news site from February, reporting an agreement between the national and provincial governments with the following timetable (if I translated right):

  • March 2013: setting up of a joint committee of the ministry of transport and the autonomous province of Trento to oversee progress
  • 31 December 2014: approval of the preliminary design by the Inter-ministerial Committee for Economic Planning
  • 31 December 2015: completion of the final design

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Mar 13th, 2013 at 10:20:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is there any sort of common cause for the repeated failure of cross-border passenger rail travel, as described here?

Is the traffic (not assuming future increases thanks to good service, something that may or may not materialize) simply insufficient to run these lines profitably?

Is the interference with freight lines so severe that the companies would just prefer to cut them?

Is it just laziness on the part of the relevant companies, who don't have the managerial energy to keep things running properly?

Were these lines dependent upon state subsidy that has since evaporated?

Have new barriers to inter-state operation developed?

Or is every case just unique, and an odd confluence of service cancellations just happened to fall at the same time?

by Zwackus on Mon Mar 11th, 2013 at 03:07:23 AM EST
The only way I can generalise all the causes is "it takes two to dance". But let's get more detailed:

  • There is the issue of technical incompatibilities. The EU is now pushing hard to eliminate or mitigate the most glaring ones, and this benefits freight in particular, but still stuff like that door control systme comes up. Or, to give another example: at one border, the train company on one side operated cross-border services all the way to the first major city in the other country, but these were cut back to the border station because the sister railway's technicians at the main station made the frequent mistake to connect train heating to the wrong voltage (frying the system).

  • In Europe, almost all local/regional passenger services are subsidized. (In the last decade or two, the responsibility for financing shifted from national governments to EU regions, thus now there are a lot more territorial units and not just national borders count.) If a service crosses the border between any two subsidizing territorial entities, it is very hard to find an arrangement in which no side feels that they got a bad deal.

  • Specifically, the two sides will have different fare systems and fare reductions, and combining the two might get both practically difficult and undesirable for the subsidizers.

  • If there are no significant economic differences that would induce people to go shopping (or work) across the border but there is a language barrier, demand might stay low even for long-distance trips.

  • The difficulty to get a good deal for both sides also applies to infrastructure investment, and if that is lacking, the connection will be less attractive for passengers, which reduces ridership, which in turn makes the line less of a priority for investment for politicians following a reactive transport infrastructure policy (that is spend money only on capacity relief). Sometimes, the opposite is the issue, though: for example, the Pontebbana line mentioned in my seed comment is state-of-the-art, but both Venice–Udine and Villach–Vienna is slow, making Venice–Vienna day trains an unattractive option.

  • Reactive transport infrastructure policy also means that overloaded cross-border roads will be addressed by building more roads, which further improves the attractivity of that traffic mode vs. non-upgraded rail, further depressing traffic and thus the willingness of public bodies to pay up.

  • There is a broader crisis: subsidized passenger services are a prime target of austerity packages. The suffering of cross-border services is most visible because they are the weakest links, but at the sime domestic services suffer, too (see Croatia).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Mar 11th, 2013 at 03:44:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the informative response.
by Zwackus on Wed Mar 13th, 2013 at 11:33:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rail fans might be interested in this article on the British 4F locomotive, from the American blog Daily Kos:

Steam locomotive 44422 - meet the 'Four Freight'

by corncam on Tue Mar 12th, 2013 at 06:38:16 PM EST
That's a good one.

Anyone who likes old trains and is visiting the U.S. of A. this summer might be interested in visiting the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. It's on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, and was part of the Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow gauge route. The more familiar Durango and Silverton railroad was also part of the same route, but their connection was cut--it crosses a Native American reservation--in around 1970 when the D&RG abandoned the line. They are both worth visiting, the C&TSR for its authenticity in freight handling technology, and the Durango train for its passenger equipment.

Here's a web cam that shows how things look now. Still winter...

by asdf on Tue Mar 12th, 2013 at 07:30:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here it's winter again (after temperatures in the 10-15°C range for almost two weeks):

(I was to attend another 15 March protest against the Orbán government, but it was called off amidst the total traffic chaos and moved to Sunday.)

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

by DoDo on Fri Mar 15th, 2013 at 09:47:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Speaking as a relatively uninformed outsider with little skin in the game - Irish railroads are very marginal to national transport policy - there seem to be a few larger meta problems.

  1. The removal of financing responsibility from national to smaller regional authorities increases complexity and the number of negotiations which must be successfully concluded for any one project. It also reduces the possibility for tradeoffs between projects.

  2. The lack of a robust over-arching EU transport policy and financing architecture - equivalent to a "single market" in transport makes relatively less complex road upgrades more attractive as they require less technical coordination and cooperative operation.

  3. Austerian economics and free market dominated politics favour the elimination of visible subsidies and costly and long term infrastructural investments.

  4. Economies of scale are more difficult in the complex and incompatible technical architecture of many different rail systems and their historical evolution. As a counter-example I give you Ryanair, which has just ordered 200 Boeing Jet aircraft, one of the largest ever commercial orders will be of a single type of plane from a single supplier operated in a single airspace regulatory and management system.

  5. It seems to me that until we set up a sort of European Union of all rail infrastructural development and management companies, rail will continue to be riddled with technical incompatibilities, over-expensive and underdeveloped. When I traveled from Dublin to Bern some years ago, the Dublin Zurich flights cost less than the Zurich Bern rail link - and I wasn't traveling Ryanair. It turned out it would have been cheaper to have hired a car for the few days.

Don't get me wrong - I am all in favour of developing rail transport. It just seems to me we don't have the political, financial, managerial, and technical architectures in place to really develop it at a faster place than competing road and air transport systems.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Mar 13th, 2013 at 05:38:32 AM EST
Well, Switzerland's railways are both the most expensive in the world and the most frequented by domestic inhabitants, and air-rail price comparisons should include mention of issues like tax-free fuel and direct and indirect subsidies for airports and plane builders.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Mar 14th, 2013 at 02:31:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know why I bothered...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Mar 15th, 2013 at 07:34:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Mar 15th, 2013 at 09:28:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Your reply didn't really address the issues Frank raised about europe-wide technical standardization and purchasing co-ordination.

You have covered some of the issues relating to technical standardization previously and the co-ordination issue is a mess. Like so much else railways are a continental resource organised at national level with poor co-ordination. This is where Frank's point about regional funding comes in. For here Europe is Ireland writ large.

I think that's where he was going anyway

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Mar 15th, 2013 at 12:16:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I hope I find the time to write up my (not very exciting experience of cross border train - Baku - Tblisi, which I did two weeks ago to look at something that Jerome help finance in a former life.... Cannot promise much, just some nice photos of the driver...
by PeWi on Wed Mar 13th, 2013 at 04:45:49 PM EST
Economics and Politics by Paul Krugman - The Conscience of a Liberal - NYTimes.com

Via Mark Thoma, a new paper in Vox on the effects of increased rail service, making clever use of natural experiments created by changes in German ownership and regulation. The results aren't that surprising -- more frequent rail service sharply reduces pollution and other costs associated with driving -- but it's good to have this kind of solid work to back our intuition.

And can I say that this is a subject that really deserves a lot more attention? Mea culpa; I haven't written much for a while on these issues, focusing mainly on the economic crisis, which is for the moment on the front burner. But we know, as surely as we know anything in economics, that there are huge market failures here -- that every time an individual chooses to drive during rush hour, he or she is imposing huge costs on other drivers, people who breathe the air, and more.

Ideally, the right answer is to get the incentives right, and charge large fees for driving in congestion. Short of that, there are huge second-best payoffs to mass transit; if you did the accounting properly, Amtrak's northeast corridor service (which makes money even without taking this into account) is a huge social boon, and projects like the Hudson rail tunnel should be total no-brainers.

And the thing is that these are externalities that everyone can see. You can deny global warming (and may you be punished in the afterlife for doing so -- this kind of denial for petty personal or political reasons is an almost inconceivable sin). But can anyone deny that more drivers means more traffic congestion?

Well, maybe I'm understating the power of denial. But still, this is a totally obvious case for government intervention that's staring us in the face every time we hit the road.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Mar 15th, 2013 at 12:26:55 PM EST
Let's just say that we get other set of right priorities ever since a British prime minister stated that there is no society, common interest.

Another 20 years, and we will be discussing that wonderful ancient technology, trains.

by das monde on Sun Mar 17th, 2013 at 05:11:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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