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:
Scandals & lawsuits
- 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.
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.