Tue Mar 26th, 2013 at 09:54:09 AM EST
Concluding the round-up of news since December, this time, the themes are financing, new rolling stock with technological novelties, the use of renewables, and various conflicts and problems.
Let's start with financing. London is currently building Crossrail, a new rapid transit system with an east–west tunnelled central artery which shall create a faster connection between suburban networks into various terminus stations and relieve parallel Underground lines (comparable to Paris's RER but integrated with existing services with less consequence). Crossrail services are to be operated with new trains, altogether 600 cars. The sizeable price tag of £1 billion was seen as an opportunity to launch another experiment into the involvement of private capital: last year the UK government initiated a procurement scheme in which train manufacturers were to finance the trains themselves and then let operator Transport for London lease them. But, as was often the case with PPP infrastructure projects, private investors faced risk premiums and had greater difficulty gathering capital on financial markets, leading to delays. Then on 1 March, amazingly, the government pulled the plug on the idea and reverted to procurement from public sources only, openly admitting that this method ensures speedier delivery (my emphasis):
The Government, the Mayor of London and Transport for London have today announced a move to a fully publicly funded procurement for the delivery of the new fleet of trains and maintenance facilities for Crossrail thereby helping to ensure that passenger services can open as scheduled in late 2018. This change was proposed by the Mayor of London and agreed by the Secretary of State, Patrick McLoughlin.
Sometimes Boris Johnson makes sense.
On the same day in Denmark, the left-of-centre government decided to tap into the Danish North Sea Fund to finance its growing list of rail infrastructure projects (see RNB14). The sum available until 2015 is about 3.7 billion. (The Danish North Sea Fund was set up based on Norway's model in 2005.)
Belgium awarded further construction contracts for the Mechelen Bypass project. As I wrote in The EU's emerging high-speed networkS, Belgium originally opted against a high-speed line between Brussels and Antwerp because time savings wouldn't justify it, but then still built a 17 km new line from Brussels to the outskirts of Mechelen for capacity reasons (which opened June last year, see RNB14). The Mechelen Bypass project will extend this across Mechelen by adding two new 160 km/h through tracks alongside existing tracks (thus all it truly bypasses will be the station platforms, not the city).
The reason I bring this as financing news becomes apparent if you look at the project map. The new tracks are only a part of a bigger project which includes station reconstruction and road re-arrangement. The last part creates faster road connections across the city, including a tunnel right under the new rail tracks. In other words, this looks like an example of a cross-subsidy where, to add insult to injury, a rail project also serves as the green-washing of a road project. (It's not the first.)
There is a news from Hungary which made international news:
THE Hungarian government has given the go-ahead for a long-discussed project to build a 113km freight line between Tatabánya and Cegléd, by-passing Budapest. This would be the biggest new railway construction in the country since 1912.
...Funding for the project is most likely to come from European Union funds, and if secured, construction could begin in 2017 with the line taking three years to build.
However, a recent 1bn cooperation agreement between the Hungarian government and the China Development Bank (CDB) might be used [as] an alternative source for financing construction. If the government decides to proceed with this option, construction could start as early as 2014 and be completed in 2017. Chinese investment was expected to fund the proposed Budapest airport railway. However, with the demise of Hungarian national air carrier MALÉV in spring 2012, this has been dropped from the agenda in favour of the Tatabánya - Cegléd line and possibly a high-speed connection from Budapest to Belgrade.
This news is worth to dwell on from three viewpoints: transport planning, Chinese foreign investment and an EU member's use of non-Western foreign investment.
- The bulk of rail transit traffic across Hungary crosses the Danube on a bridge in southern Budapest, a bridge that is a 'temporary' post-war construction which should have been replaced and widened to three tracks decades ago. Thus a freight bypass of Budapest would make eminent sense from a capacity viewpoint. Indeed I first heard of the project in the late eighties from my late grandfather, who retired from the rail industry. Of course, with austerity kicking in and East Bloc trade collapsing after the system change and the glorious start of capitalism, the project was buried for good in the nineties.
- China is (1) awash with money due to its export economy and low wages, (2) hungry for natural resources to supply its industry, and (3) has a large rail construction industry which would suffer once the current frenzied rate of construction inevitably subsides. To mitigate all three of these problems, in the last few years, China began to offer both capital and expertise for rail projects all across the developing world, primarily but not exclusively for mining railways (also see RNB7 and RNB8 from a year ago). A contribution to this project in Hungary would only extend the trend into the EU. However, common to all these projects is high political and/or economic risk, and most have been drawn out or scrapped after either the Chinese or the other side balked at the necessary guarantees.
- For Hungary, involving Chinese capital in rail projects is part of a broader policy: Viktor Orbán's government is seeking financing from sources other than the EU or IMF. So far this involved the quite unabashed lobbying of the autocratic regimes of East Europe and Asia (for example, they lobbied Azerbaijan by handing over an axe-murderer convicted for the murder of an Armenian co-student in Hungary in his sleep, who was promptly pardoned and given a hero's welcome by the Aliyev regime). Just like Cyprus's attempt to get Russia involved, the Orbán government's policy saw meagre success: the hoped-for lenders either saw investment as too risky or asked for even higher interest rates than Western lenders. That's one major reason why I am quite sceptical about the Budapest freight bypass becoming reality any time soon, with or without Chinese capital.
Speaking of China
, the rail sector there is due for another sea change. In China, the operation and development of railways is entirely in the control of the Ministry of Railways (MOR). However, in 2011, the construction contract scandals and the Wenzhou accident (a result of irresponsible development of technology) highlighted the problem that the rail administration controls itself. So last week, China announced that MOR will be replaced
by a new structure, one more reminiscent of Europe a few years ago: there will be a corporation for the daily operation of the system and the ownership of construction projects, and there will be an independent authority under the transport ministry to oversee the former and also to give strategic long-term planning. This is all great, but they also expressed hope that the corporation could attract private capital. If they think Europe is an example to follow in that respect, they haven't looked closely.
New rolling stock
As discussed in my mini-series on modern electric and diesel locos in Europe, this market saw a difficult transition to the model of the aerospace industry: manufacturers now compete for orders from all across Europe with complete modular product platforms, instead of national customer-coordinated development. The key challenge for manufacturers now is not the development of interoperable technology, but getting your product approved for as many networks as possible. Consider the case of the Channel Tunnel, where through freight trains underperformed compared to through passenger trains (Eurostar) and both freight and passenger shuttles in no small part because there was no single loco approved for all three networks to be traversed (UK, France, and the Channel Tunnel itself with its special safety needs), necessitating a locomotive change or two. Leading the race to get all the approvals is French maker Alstom, which tested a prototype of its PRIMA II locomotive platform in the Chunnel last September (see RNB17). In January, Siemens followed suit with a prototype of its Vectron locomotive platform. I suspect the third European rail industry giant, Bombardier, will soon follow with its market leader TRAXX locos.
In my report on the rail industry fair InnoTrans 2012, I noted that manufacturers now also created an electric version of their locomotive platforms with an auxiliary diesel engine to spare a locomotive change at short non-electrified sections, the so-called last-mile diesel. On the approval front, Polish maker PESA stole the march on the main manufacturers with its new Gama locomotive platform: the first loco with a last-mile diesel went into service on 12 January. Just four days later, the diesel engine was
put into practical use in mainline service: during an overhead line power outage (see video below).
The EU standardised the length of platforms for long-distance trains at 400 m. Respecting that, from the nineties, it became customary to limit the length of multiple units at around half of that (that is 200 m, equivalent to seven or eight non-articulated cars) and form longer trains by coupling two or more multiple units. However, this decade, longer multiple units are making a re-appearance. First Eurostar ordered 400 m long trains in late 2010 (see Chunnel safety again). Then in 2011, German Railways DB ordered the ICx, electric multiple units to replace its remaining locomotive-hauled trains in IC/EC service (and, eventually, its older, slower than 300 km/h ICE1 and ICE2 high-speed trains), in seven- and ten-car versions, with the latter (at 288 m long) providing an intermediate capacity option between one single and two coupled seven-car trains. The only problem was that ten cars was short of the typical intermediate capacity in IC/EC service. So on 5 March, DB decided to revise the order and lengthen the ten-car units to twelve cars, citing an increase in traffic (so, was the original order based on an expectation of a decrease in traffic?). The revision also includes a more energy-efficient internal lighting and more luggage room.
In Japan, a new Shinkansen type for central and western Japan, the N700A Series entered service on 8 February. This is not a truly new type but the further optimisation of the N700 type, which was already one of the most energy-efficient in the world. For passengers, the most noticeable change is, as for the ICx, new internal lighting using LEDs; and energy efficiency is further helped by some weight reductions. But the two biggest technology improvements are in fields where Japan was behind Europe:
- The N700A employs a new train control system, which introduces a positive tolerance above the speed limit and uses a track model to predict the power needed, thus improving speed control and ability to make up for delays.
- Modified brake discs were used to shorten emergency braking distance, which is important due to earthquakes. (A European high-speed train can stop in under 3.3 km from 320 km/h with eddy-current brake and in under 4 km without on dry level track, older Shinkansen need just under 4 km from 275 km/h.)
Meanwhile, the other Japanese contender for the title of most efficient high-speed train, East Japan Railway's E5 Series, began to operate at its intended regular top speed of 320 km/h
on 16 March. The E5 Series can stop in under 4 km from full speed, too, with brake discs supplied by Knorr-Bremse of Germany
In January, Spain's RENFE announced that all of its electricity comes from renewables: one provider supplies 6% from hydro, another supplies most of the rest from wind. The rail network in Spain uses two voltage systems: 1.5 kV DC and 50 Hz, 25 kV AC. Both of these can be fed from the public grid, thus it is relatively uncomplicated to contract wind farms and such.
The situation is more difficult for railways using the 16.7 Hz, 15 kV AC system (Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway): railways basically have their own separate grid (with their own power plants), which not only has a frequency different from that of the public grid but is single-phase rather than three-phase. In most of these countries, there is ample hydro power for the rail grid, but in Germany, the bulk comes from thermal plants. Nevertheless, DB wants to increase the share of renewables to 35% by 2020, thus in March it contracted two more wind farms near the North Sea (increasing expected annual wind production to a still meagre 0.14 TWh) and contracted Austrian hydropower (boosting hydro by 0.3 TWh or 3 percentage points to altogether 20% of DB's total consumption).
Various conflicts and problems
In Bulgaria, the (now outgoing) government wanted to deal with loss-making state railways BDZ the 'usual' EU way: by splitting up into multiple independent branches and privatising the freight branch after prior cash injection. However, these plans were scuppered by the European Commission, which was concerned about the cash injection part and 'lack of competition'. However, egged on by a World Bank credit to BDZ conditional on the sale, the government started a second privatisation attempt last June. Now this looks to be failing for a very different reason: the anti-austerity protests which toppled the government also took direct aim at the rail privatisation plan, and the transport minister admitted that potential bidders are withdrawing due to political risk.
A very different conflict is brewing in a member state which can showcase a shiny new market entrant on the long-distance passenger market. In Austria, open-access operator WESTbahn threatened to leave the Salzburg traffic association by the end of March over the issue of compensation for its losses from accepting passengers with reduced-fare regional passes. The association has a rule of reviewing compensation for a new member only four years after joining, and WESTbahn (which didn't start all that well and in November expected profitability in 2013 "at the earliest") apparently can't wait. (In January, Germany's also struggling open-access operator HKX – see RNB19 – forecast profitability for 2013, too.)
You may recall that in December, Austria opened a second Vienna–St. Pölten line (see RNB19). This line is fitted with ETCS Level 2, the wireless version of the intended all-European train control and signalling system (introduced in 310 km/h with ETCS). One would think that after so many years of dealing with teething problems in other countries and extensive tests in Austria, entry into service would go smoothly, but no: in January, ETCS problems forced trains to deviate to the old line, meaning 15-minute delays. This affected 20% of the railjet services to Salzburg operated by Austrian Federal Railways ÖBB and 40% of ICE services to Frankfurt.
ÖBB explained that some components couldn't cope with ice and snowdrift. This is an apparent parallel to the Fyra problems in the Netherlands and Belgium: the extensive tests were conducted prior to winter, in warmer weather. However, in this case, I wonder: Austria and ETCS L2 component suppliers could have relied on multi-year winter experience in another country, Switzerland.
For passengers, delays are one thing, but lack of information makes things worse. In Germany, this became an issue between the Federal Railway Agency (EBA) and DB, with the former insisting on a comprehensive coverage of stations with information systems and the latter dragging its feet for financial reasons in the case of low-traffic stops. EBA had to go to the courts and won on 18 January. The decision means that 1,900 out of DB's 5,500 stations will have to be retrofitted with electronic displays and loudspeakers.
I'm conflicted about this. On one hand, yes, all passengers deserve good information (especially from a company as bad at communication as DB), and running such an information system shouldn't be a problem (indeed I observed it on SNCF's secondary lines years ago). On the other hand, the cost of installing these systems (and maintaining them, where vandalism is an issue) might motivate DB to end services to some low-traffic stations instead. I should also add that writing from Hungary, I could also say "You have problems!...", given that passenger information cannot be considered proper even on main stations here, especially since the separation of infrastructure (which includes train dispatching) and train operations.
Furthermore, I wonder how technology will change the picture. Should the spread of smart-phones be similar to that of simple cell phones, that is basically all but the homeless will have them in a few years, then an applet or a web page will be able to provide better information than station displays and loudspeakers. For example, even in Hungary, we already have this: a Google Maps-based page showing the location of all passenger trains in Hungary (located with GPS), and giving both scheduled and calculated delayed arrivals/departures if you click on the train's circle. Sometimes even the reason for the delay is named.
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