Gareth Evans: What is Eurotunnel planning and how will it fit into the wider picture of the European freight rail market?
John Keefe: Putting it simply, we want to develop rail freight through the tunnel. Over the last few years, the rate of (European freight rail) growth has been negative, so we’ve taken the view that if nobody else was going to do it, we’d do it ourselves – even if we’re not in a position to reveal the overall strategic timescale just yet.
In 2007 we started offering traction services through our Europorte subsidiary and we have taken over the SNCF yard at Frethun.
Buying the French subsidiaries of Veolia Cargo in November should let us expand into local and regional services, and give us a foothold in the European market, but our real emphasis remains bringing freight through the tunnel.
GE: Following on from that, I understand that part of the goal is to see a diversion of some of the current short-haul express airfreight to high-speed rail. What will that mean for both logistics companies and their customers?
JK: We’re part of the Euro Carex project, which is all about getting express freight onto rail. With the coming of High Speed 1, the whole thing has become simpler and offers major environmental advantages too – but it obviously needs the main logistics operators to get behind the idea.
With all modal transport shifts, it’ll take time, but in the end there should be significant benefits to be had for us and for our customers.
Many companies in time-sensitive markets, moving high-value products, perishables and so on, will benefit. If High Speed 2 materialises, it will be a big boost that will also allow us to get freight through the tunnel and distribute it up and down the country.
GE: I suppose from a user’s perspective, the big question is how ‘high speed’ will the service actually be?
JK: Well, that all depends on the size and the weight of the train, but the trains that we and Eurostar run through the tunnel are the most powerful in the world, and speeds of 160km/h for passengers and 120km/h for freight are routine now, so depending on the mix, we could have freight travelling at somewhere between those two speeds.
GE: What are the main issues involved with introducing high-speed freight trains through the Channel Tunnel?
JK: There aren’t any particular issues; the only real problem is getting trains onto high-speed links. Any issues are outside the tunnel, not through it.
GE: Are there any particular technical obstacles to overcome?
JK: High-speed technology already exists, so it’s more about issues like track time. For instance, can the trains be run during the day or outside of peak periods? The obstacles are organisational rather than technical.
GE: Why is now the right time to do this?
JK: It’s been the “right time” for the past 15 years – ever since the tunnel opened, in fact! But there are a number of things that make it a good time for Eurotunnel to be moving into this market.
Principally, we have a massive capacity at a time when air and sea ports are struggling to cope and with our good access and ease of loading, we compare well on time and can even make savings over traditional routes.
GE: Have the unfortunate events around Christmas / New Year and the issues they raised had any effect on support for the project?
JK: Not really. That problem was a technical one – the Eurostar trains just broke down, so provided that the freight locomotives don’t, then it won’t be an issue. The industry has learnt from the experience, of course, and adequately winterising is recognised as of paramount importance. The other problem – passenger evacuation – obviously wouldn’t apply to freight.
GE: In January, DB Schenker Rail suggested that some of the rules surrounding the tunnel’s use had stifled the growth of European rail freight – something I know Eurotunnel robustly rebutted at the time. Do you see these new services as the way that rail freight operators can increase their market share?
JK: If you take the market as a whole, I think there’s an awful lot that could be done, provided operators remain open-minded about the possibilities. Part of the problem is that as the gateway operators, DB Schenker effectively “police” other operators, obliging them to reveal commercial information to a business rival; it’s hard to see how you can have a gatekeeper who’s actually a competitor.
From the market point of view, our pricing means that the tonnage per train is increasing, and that means more capacity and greater efficiency.
GE: Is there anything else that you feel contributes to the likely success and commercial viability of the project?
JK: The environmental argument is hard to beat – why fly when the tunnel is there? Supermarkets are already calling for environmental statements from hauliers to accompany their tenders and with some studies suggesting that freight through the tunnel is 20 times less polluting than a ferry burning bunker fuel, it makes sense for them too.
Add to that that freight coming through France and through the Channel Tunnel by rail is being powered by electricity from nuclear power or HEP – not fossil fuels – and I think we offer a clear benefit.
GE: Where will European rail freight be in ten years’ time, and how much of a role will Eurotunnel have had in getting it there?
JK: We would certainly hope to see a significant increase over where it is now and if we are successful with the Euro Carex corridors and getting rail freight through the tunnel, then we could help move the market on significantly.
I think we need to change the way rail freight is perceived. The aim has to be to get it seen as the first choice, rather than an alternative. If we can provide premium services, timetabling, dedicated trucks and a true high-speed network, then the future of rail freight is definitely good.