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Rail News Blogging #25

by DoDo Sun May 26th, 2013 at 11:30:53 AM EST

The main focus of this diary is on measures for the better integration of various parts of rail systems: gauge enhancement in Switzerland, temporary broad gauge in Spain, the semi-abolition of unbundling in Britain, and reliability improvements to the RER in Paris. Further themes will be scandals and lawsuits, progress in trans-Asian projects, and a new Euro-American locomotive.

Let's start in Switzerland. The centrepiece of the Alpine country's ambitions to move transit freight from road to rail, the 57 km Gotthard Base Tunnel, will open in 2016, and the 15.4 km Ceneri Base Tunnel will follow three years later. Unlike legacy lines in Switzerland with their relatively narrow loading gauge (cross section), these will be suited for standard piggyback wagons carrying trucks with an also standard 4.0 m corner height. (For a solution with non-standard wagons see InnoTrans 2012.)

Rail companies have complained, however, that the large loading gauge of the new tunnels will be of no use if connecting lines won't be adapted, too. Now the Swiss Federal Council finally moved and approved a gauge enhancement programme that will run until 2020 with a budget of CHF940 million (€755 million). The single largest project is the doubling of the 2,526 m Bözbergtunnel (on the crossing of the Jura mountains between Basel and Zurich). Some experts are rather critical of this, however, arguing that this will bring neither a capacity nor a speed increase, unlike a shelved project for a new tunnel a bit further to the east.

The 50 km Pajares Cut-Off, with the 24,667 m Pajares Base Tunnel as its centrepiece, will connect Gijón and Oviedo on Spain's Atlantic coast with central Spain, replacing a mountain pass route. The project is years behind schedule: in addition to geological problems forcing repairs of the main tunnel, which has been bored by 2009, track-laying was in limbo. The thing is, Spain builds its high-speed lines in normal gauge and has a long-term policy to convert Iberian-gauge conventional lines too, but the upgraded/new lines connecting to either end of the Pajares Cut-Off are far from completion. Finally it was decided to tender construction of broad-gauge track and traditional 3 kV DC electrification, with particular attention to the sustainment of the 182 freight trains a week now using the old line. Still, the infrastructure is to be suitable for eventual conversion to standard gauge and 25 kV/50 Hz AC, which will take less than a month.

A prerequisite for both methods of rail liberalisation applied in Europe, franchising and open access, is unbundling: the separation of train operations and infrastructure management. I have been repeatedly critical of this, arguing that on rail, vehicles and infrastructure are in such a strong interdependence that abolishing integration will bring inefficiencies and battles over externalities. Lately, there has been some pushback in some major EU countries. In a pioneer of the franchising model, Britain, where bad infrastructure management has been a scandal over the past decade and half, there are attempts at enhanced coordination between the two sides. In fact, in an interview with IRJ, the boss of infrastructure manager Network Rail gives a glowing account of positive experience with a project that sounds like de-facto re-bundling:

Another initiative last year was the creation of an alliance between NR's Wessex route and South West Trains which Higgins says should help "drive out duplication of work." He says the alliance has initiated new-found cooperation and mutual trust between NR and SWT staff. "With one unified management team, it is now irrelevant - as well as increasingly difficult to tell - which parent organisation each person comes from," Higgins reveals. "NR staff now have a better understanding of the impact of our work on the train operating company and passengers, and SWT has a greater understanding of the issues we face in gaining access to the track for essential maintenance and renewal. Both sides can see that there are few easy wins, but more to gain by working closely together. For example, we have been able to rebalance priorities on key stretches from Wimbledon and Barnes into London Waterloo and we expect greater efficiencies as we transfer capital budgets into the Alliance."

If it is irrelevant and difficult to tell which parent organisation each person comes from, isn't the logical next step to merge the parent organisations?...

The Paris RER network turned suburban commuter lines ending in terminus stations into transit lines, by adding cross-city tunnel connections which also function as express metro for the city core. A great concept, but, as discussed recently, the busy lines A and B presently suffer from unreliable service. As if responding to the issues raised in that discussion, public authorities now prepared a €2 billion enhancement programme, including these measures:

  • re-signalling;
  • upgrading power supplies;
  • measures against suicides and cable theft;
  • enhanced vehicle maintenance with lineside detectors;
  • completion of Line E (which currently terminates under Gare Saint-Lazare) with connections to the north-west to relieve Line A;
  • finally, joint management for Line B and later Line A, which are currently operated by RATP in the city and SNCF outside with problems when trains cross over.

Scandals & lawsuits

Berlin's equivalent of the RER, the S-Bahn, was hit by a wave of service cancellations and malfunctions due to bad vehicle maintenance in 2009, and things still aren't back to normal. Instead of recognising excessive profit motive as the problem, the ruling SPD–CDU coalition government exploited the crisis to push for competitive tendering of the operation of separate lines. In doing so they stepped over opposition from the SPD party base (see RNB14) and a civic initiative that gathered enough signatures for a referendum.

The civic initiative, which also demanded several changes in the existing contract and more transparency, sued, but lost: the constitutional court of Berlin (which is one of the 16 states of federal Germany) ruled that a contract also involving another state (Brandenburg) cannot be the subject of a state referendum. It seems intergovernmental agreements can be used to sidestep democracy at levels below the country level, too.

The organisations succeeding Poland's state railway PKP retained its exclusion from general bankruptcy law. The European Commission, however, considered this a guarantee of unlimited subsidy, and forced Poland's otherwise ultra-neoliberal government to change the law. To still protect passengers resp. freight customers, train operators are permitted to continue providing services for six months after declaring bankruptcy.

In Austria, the management of RCA, the freight branch of Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), is now under investigation in a fraud case. The main culprit is an Austrian logistics company operating container trains to Greece, which routinely overloaded its containers. RCA was involved as the partner contracted for traction, and RCA apparently ignored the loading problems.

A year ago, India's railway minister resigned when his own party opposed the fare increases he planned. Now his successor resigned, too, over a corruption scandal.

Progress for trans-Asian projects

I keep paying attention to the various initiatives aiming at the facilitation of rail freight traffic between China at one end and Europe or the Middle East at the other end, which I termed Another Great Game and last reviewed in RNB21.

The most progressed schemes (ones with actual regular trains) use the Trans-Siberian. Russian Railways (RZD) realised years ago that to facilitate this market, they need to improve transit times along the line. Hence, RZD launched a project titled "Trans-Siberian in Seven Days", aiming to halve transit times between 2008 and 2012. Now, a year behind target, the first regular container train with a seven-day schedule departed a far-eastern port near Vladivostok on 1 May and arrived in Moscow on 8 May.

Another, for now regional link is being established by the construction of a line east of the Caspian Sea, crossing Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The Kazakhstan section was opened on 11 May.

New Siemens locomotive for AMTRAK

To replace its oldest electric locomotives on the Northeast Corridor, American long-distance passenger operator AMTRAK ordered 70 new locos from Siemens, to be classified as ACS-64 "Amtrak Cities Sprinter". On 13 May, the first loco was rolled out (photo below from IRJ):

Although manufactured in the USA in compliance with "Buy American" laws, this 200 km/h, 6.4 MW, triple-voltage type is a North American adaptation of Siemens's new Vectron locomotive family (see f.e. here). The 70 units are more than double of the number of Vectrons sold so far in Europe: a mere 31 total to just three customers. My explanation for this reservation is the drawn-out certification process. I also think that this is a contributing factor to Siemens Transportation and Logistics' losses in the most recent quarter, although most blame goes to the delays with the new Velaro D and Velaro e320 high-speed trains, again connected to commissioning problems.

:: :: :: :: ::

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

The photo below shows ÖBB 1116 065, a loco on loan to Austo-Hungarian semi-private railway GySEV, heading a GySEV IC train on arrival in Kelenföld station in Budapest.

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

by DoDo on Sat May 25th, 2013 at 09:15:43 AM EST
I remember some Italian railway boss (a tech guy) saying on tv that it would be better/more economical/practical to build out the Lötschberg axis, because there isn't and won't be enough capacity on the Italian side of the Gotthard axis. Likewise, we know about the problems on the German side. I wonder whether we have to wait a decade or two before the Swiss projects are fully utilized.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Wed May 29th, 2013 at 02:34:19 PM EST
Yes, but there is something to say for nations being shamed by the success of others. Britain was shamed by the initially terrible rail link from the channel tunnel to London, considering how France was forging ahead with their high speed network.

I doubt that HS2 would even be considered for the UK if it were not for the French.

Maybe this Swiss effort will spur responses from their partners to the north and south

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed May 29th, 2013 at 02:54:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
From what I read, it increasingly looks like we'll have to wait another decade.

The Swiss-financed upgrades in Italy are creating a substitute route which bypasses the Ceneri Base Tunnel; the permanent solution would involve a 25 km extension of the tunnel to the border for which the route hasn't been chosen, and quadruple-tracking to Milan, but Italy only wants resignalling in a first step.

In Germany, there are drawn-out projects all the way to the Dutch border:

  • The third track from the Dutch border to the Ruhr Area is now at least progressing with a drawn-out planning approval process.
  • The extra freight line between Cologne and the Frankfurt/Main area is still just a vague idea.
  • The Frankfurt–Mannheim high-speed line project is stuck again, and the electrification of a parallel line west of the Rhine (Nahetalbahn) is in the clouds, though at least tunnel widening is ongoing.
  • Between Karlsruhe and Basel, things still move at glacial speed, but DB at least moved towards the alternative routes proposed by civic initiatives.
  • An auxiliary route from Basel would be the Upper Rhine Line, where the last news was the withdrawal of the canton of Aargau from financing.

All but the last one of course affects the Lötschberg route, too. The Lötschberg route has other limits, too: while completing the second tube of the Lötschberg Base tunnel and widening the approach tunnels on the Italian side would be cheaper than the Ceneri extension, the section between the Simplon tunnel and Domodossola is and remains a steep climb (25‰), with all the limitations and special requirements that go along with that.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed May 29th, 2013 at 04:46:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What about a French hook-up at Basel? That could draw a very substantial portion of French transalpine traffic.

Though I suppose since French trucks can use the Basel terminal, that's part of the answer.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 08:02:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In fact, one branch of the TEN-T Rail Freight Corridor 2 ends in Basel, providing for an alternative route between the BeNeLux ports and the Swiss trans-Alpine routes. There was a recent news on an improvement there:

Unified control for European Corridor 2 | International Railway Journal

THREE national infrastructures managers, ProRail, Infrabel and French Rail Network (RFF), together with Luxembourg Railways (CFL) and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), have set up a unified structure to manage European Corridor 2 to provide a one-stop shop for freight operators.

This may bring real change because RFF and SNCF weren't all that enthusiastic about facilitating transit traffic before (Belgium upgraded and electrified a line to the triple border with Luxembourg and France but traffic reduced once the line to Aachen was electrified, too). But you'd need resignalling, further upgrades and capacity enhancements in France and at junctions to make this a real alternative.

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

by DoDo on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 09:26:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Swiss-financed upgrades in Italy are creating a substitute route

That said, intermodal operator Hupac said last year that the Luino line should be the priority.

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

by DoDo on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 09:33:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's probably not completely Kosher to bring this article in here, but VW has been making noise again about a highly efficient prototype car.


The XL1 is a carbon fiber, two-passenger supercar with a tiny diesel engine and a battery-driven electric motor that together conspire to give a fuel economy of 1 liter/100 km (around 260 MPG). Because of the construction method, It Will Be Expensive. But it will also be pretty practical.

The point of mentioning it is that with this sort of fuel consumption, the conventional tradeoff between cars and trains needs to be looked at again.  This is around 500 passenger-miles per gallon, which is quite comparable to what you get with a modern passenger train. (Obviously they're not directly comparable.) And with the car, you get a lot of other advantages and disadvantages. But such a low consumption number in a car that can actually be made in volume suggests that there is still going to be a place for passenger cars for the foreseeable future...

by asdf on Wed May 29th, 2013 at 09:47:23 PM EST
But it will also be pretty practical.

A two-seater the size of a mid-size car?... I don't think so.

A related news I heard only yesterday on TV: there is much criticism for the standard EU test of fuel consumption, because it doesn't reflect normal usage patterns (forgetting about highways) and there are loopholes that allow manufacturers to reduce tested consumption further (no AC running, foil taped ion the front). Real average consumption estimated in tests is about a quarter higher today, with differences among manufacturers (I remember BMW at 30%), and this difference grew from about 8% for cars a decade ago.

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

by DoDo on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 02:35:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a Honda Insight and it is extremely practical. Two seats is enough for 99% of the driving I do, and in those other cases we use my SO's car, or rent one, or take the bus, or taxi...

Fuel consumption testing to get "real world" results is very difficult and open to all sorts of manipulation. Over here, they changed the rules a couple of years ago and suddenly all the cars had lower ratings than before. The Insight (original version, 2000-2006, with manual transmission) is now rated at 52 combined MPG, but when it came out it was listed at 61/70 (city/highway) using the older rules. In practice, my overall average economy is 71 MPG (3.3 l/100 km) over a distance of 70,000 miles (115,000 km). That is in all conditions, hot/cold, highway, mountains, desert, snow, etc. So with some reasonable care and sensible driving habits--obeying the speed limit, for example, and not treating every traffic light as a drag race--it is possible to exceed the U.S. economy standards without much difficulty.

I would expect this VW to get the sort of numbers they are talking about when driven by somebody who wants to get them, and I would expect the car to suffer a mysterious mechanical failure and get 25 MPG when "tested" by the Top Gear crew.

by asdf on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 10:38:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not going to claim expertise on what is practical in cars, but for wide use, I think it should have enough space for a weekend shopping, and for two parents and a child. If I'm not mistaken, even the original Honda Insight has storage room behind the front seats, and the current version is a four-seater. In contrast, the VW XL1 doesn't appear to have any storage room, it's in effect a sports car.

But, what should count is not the consumption of your expensive small-series high-end car, but average fleet consumption. And on this front, there is the trickery in tests, and there is the Merkel government's sabotage of stricter EU regulations due to German manufacturers unwilling to significantly power down the bulk of the cars they sell.

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

by DoDo on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 12:33:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Two seat cars don't work very well when you have kids, that is true. And obviously the fleet average is the problem. (Well, having a population of people who expect to be able to travel is really the problem. A ten mile radius was acceptable for serfs in the Middle Ages, so why the sudden need to "see" everything???)

I understand that the VW has a good-sized storage compartment in the back. We have done a lot of grocery shopping trips in my Honda without much difficulty.

by asdf on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 01:04:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I understand that the VW has a good-sized storage compartment in the back

Yesterday I failed to find a photo or text reference while drawings seemed to imply that the battery takes its place. After some more searching today, I find confirmation of your claim, and the luggage room is given as 120 litres – I'm not sure if this is the standard number for useful volume or total volume. For comparison, the new Insight has 339 (408) litres (more with back seats down), the oldest model apparently had 139 litres (useful volume; I found no data for total volume but maybe you have it?). A non-hybrid two-seater, the Smart, had 150 (363) litres in its original version and 220 (340) litres in the current fortwo version.

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

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 07:35:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Everything known to man about the first generation Honda Insight is at http://www.insightcentral.net Under the Encyclopedia heading (left side):

Cargo volume (Honda's figure)    462 liters (16.3 cu ft)
Main cargo area (by EU standards)    139 liters (5 cu ft)
Below-floor storage area    48 liters (1.5 cu ft)

I think the car company standard is to fill the car up with ping pong balls, but that is not very practical for regular use. We find space in the Insight for two suitcases and various shoes and jackets without difficulty. You do have to be aware of the battery cooling vents that obviously cannot be blocked. There are three of them, and they pull in passenger compartment air based on the theory that the passengers are going to manage their environmental temperature to the point where it is comfortable for both humans and batteries.

The below-floor storage is pretty awkward, and I only use it to hold a spare air filter and a small tool kit.

by asdf on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 02:13:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Finally I was able to find photos of the VW XL1 luggage room.

120 l seems pretty much the total capacity, not enough for travel, but probably enough for modest shopping. For comparison, this appears to be the original Honda Insight's:

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

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 02:59:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep. Two reasons:

  • The VW is a smaller car. The Honda is actually pretty good sized when you get down to it. Plenty of interior room (for two people), excessive headroom, actually. Seats spaced like a regular car.
  • The VW has to carry a big traction battery. The Honda can't run on electricity alone, and only carries 120 "D" cells as a an energy reservoir. The control electronics take up more space than the battery.
by asdf on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 03:52:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On another note, I wonder what the consumption of hybrids really means for the sake of comparisons between modes.
  • On short distances, I imagine hybrids could in theory have zero fuel consumption, working as a battery car in practice. However, at least in Europe, on the short distance in cities, the main practical issue with cars is not consumption but congestion, which isn't reduced by hybrids.
  • Over longer distances, the internal combustion motor will dominate, and consumption will be higher. (The VW XL1 has a range of 550 km and a 10 l tank, so on a long trip average consumption can be up to 1.8 l/100 km.)

Of course, if we look at CO2 emissions rather than energy, rail can and should compete hybrids by decarbonising electricity supply.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 07:47:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, that is exactly the argument for hybrids. If you're in battery range, run on batteries. Outside of that, run on a small conventional system of some sort. A couple of obvious points:

  • If the car is stopped in congestion, the traction motors aren't doing anything. A conventional engine uses a small amount of fuel even at idle.
  • The conventional engine can be small because you have the battery assistance for acceleration and hills, assuming you don't allow the battery to go completely to zero charge.
  • Batteries are getting better and cheaper.
  • Few trips actually require range beyond maybe 50 km.
  • You can heat or cool the passenger compartment while the car is still plugged in, before your trip starts.
  • Because you foolishly connected your big automobile battery to the grid for charging, the grid can borrow some of your energy if the wind isn't blowing right now...
by asdf on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 02:19:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They've been showing off that prototype for more than ten years. Concept cars that don't make it into mass production primarily serve as tranquilizers for the car-buying public. Yes, 'they' are doing something. Thus, we don't have to change.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 06:07:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, they've been showing off related prototypes for a while. The "news" is that they're going to make 250 of this version and lease it in Germany and Austria.
by asdf on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 10:26:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Going off on a tanget, Helen wondered if batteries could not be swapped at gas stations for electric cars. I recently saw that a company (based in Israel I think) based on such tech has gone belly up. The basic problem was that in order to make it, the solution needed to become industry standard so that most producers supported it before the gas stations was interested. Chicken and egg problem.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 08:16:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What would happen if you cross-bred J. R. Ewing of "Dallas" and Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club? You'd get T. Boone Pickens. What would happen if you cross-bred Henry Ford and Yitzhak Rabin? You'd get Shai Agassi. And what would happen if you put together T. Boone Pickens, the green billionaire Texas oilman now obsessed with wind power, and Shai Agassi, the Jewish Henry Ford now obsessed with making Israel the world's leader in electric cars?

You'd have the start of an energy revolution.

(Thomas Friedman on this company)
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 08:34:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's a lot of homosexual cross-breeding for a single Thomas Friedman article...

In the long run, we're all misquoted — not Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 08:40:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As a torturer of language, Friedman never disappoints...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 09:48:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps noteworthy is that now both the Belgian NMBS and the Dutch NS have decided to pull the plug on the Fyra trains from AnsaldoBreda.
The High speed track is still there.
by Wilfred on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 06:19:43 AM EST
The first act of the Fyra demise (SNCB/NMBS pulling the plug) was reported by Bjinse. There is now an article in English listing a lot of the quality problems from the report which was the basis of SNCB's decision.

Note: the Thalys trains still run on the tracks, too.

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

by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 08:32:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Substitute services and other consequences from the article:

SNCB pulls out of V250 deal - Railway Gazette

NS Hispeed is continuing to review its position and expects to reach a decision by mid-June. However, NS Chief Executive Bert van Meerstadt announced on June 2 that he would be stepping down with effect from October 1.

To cover for the loss of the cross-border Fyra trains, SNCB said the interim Brussels - Den Haag service via Roosendaal introduced in February would be stepped up from eight to 10 trains a day as soon as possible, and to 12 per day with the December 2013 timetable change. To serve passengers using the high speed line, SNCB has asked Thalys to step up its Brussels - Amsterdam service to 12 trains/day from December, and wants Eurostar to introduce two daily London - Brussels - Amsterdam services with effect from December 2016.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 09:52:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
According to Eurail press, NS doesn't have the final say over the Dutch exist from the Fyra supply contract: the Dutch parliament will discuss it on 20 June.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 05:57:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wrote:

Another, for now regional link is being established by the construction of a line east of the Caspian Sea, crossing Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The Kazakhstan section was opened on 11 May.

And on 27 May, the Iran section was inaugurated, too.

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

by DoDo on Mon Jun 3rd, 2013 at 10:49:50 AM EST
Ha! Vectrons are coming near me. It seems orders finally start to arrive for Siemens, as locomotive leasing company MRCE just ordered 15, and these will be equipped for Germany, Austria and Hungary.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 05:54:48 AM EST
In that last photo has an example of the somewhat unusual three way point.  Much more interesting to look at that than the locomotive.  It's a shame that they cut off the toe in the photo.
by njh on Tue Jun 4th, 2013 at 11:35:01 AM EST

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