Rail Freight Services: On the Right Track

16 March 2008 (Last Updated March 16th, 2008 18:30)

Rail freight is gaining traction as the world looks to environmentally friendly ways of transporting goods. Neil Pulling looks at the affect this is having on rail freight services around the world.

Rail Freight Services: On the Right Track

The railways were first created to transport goods rather than people, so it is appropriate that this field remains open to ongoing innovation. In spite of the 'mixed railway' (freight and passenger trains sharing common infrastructure) remaining the international norm, the two operations seem increasingly divergent in terms of ownership, management and motive power requirements.

Even infrastructure sharing is being eroded with new freight-only routes or new passenger lines leaving 'classic' lines mainly to be used by freight. Clearly it is getting less acceptable for trains carrying people and those carrying goods to be allowed to get in the way of each other.

With growing concern over the environment, rail has increasingly become regarded in official circles as the most environmentally friendly way to move freight around. But this is not the only reason rail freight rates have grown.

Overall freight volumes have been rising in recent years; hence, rail operators in both private and public sectors have been making big changes, partly out of necessity and partly to capitalise upon this opportunity after years of road haulage's ascendancy.

"It is getting less acceptable for trains carrying people and those carrying goods to be allowed to get in the way of each other."

MODERN TRANSPORT COTNAINERS: INTERMODAL OPERATIONS

Identified by Forbes Magazine as 'one of the few men who changed the world', Malcom McLean (1914–2001) created the modern transport container in which at least 90% of global non-bulk freight now moves. Trans-shipped between road, ship and rail, 'intermodal' shipment has become a principal form of rail traffic, which subject to clearance and handling equipment, solves even the problem of different gauges.

Having passed its 50th anniversary and being more established than ever, the heavy-duty container will clearly remain a world standard.

Although not an option for most countries with restrictive loading gauges, to increase capacity within a given train length, double stacking has become widespread for long intermodal hauls in places like Australia and the US. For the latter, the practice accounts for about 70% of all container traffic by rail.

Intermodal freight can also incorporate the lighter 'swap bodies' for rail/road transfer, a technology that lends itself to food transport that could see greater use if road transport becomes less viable for whatever reason.

"Trans-shipped between road, ship and rail, 'intermodal' shipment has become a principal form of rail traffic."

Used in previous decades in several countries, the bi-modal road-railer (semi-trailers that form an articulated mount on rail bogies) has remained a feature of some US railroads.

Not all obstacles to innovation relate to technology or engineering limitations. In spite of most western and central European countries being in the European Community, the protection of national identities and interests can still impede transits as surely as breakdowns or blocked lines.

Characterised by many countries with different signalling, electrification and operational practices, the route to freer freight movements is greater interoperability.

With multi-voltage locomotives becoming more common, international spans of ownership in the freight business and with the common European Rail Traffic Management System in prospect, it may prove that it is non-technical issues that are last obstacles to go.

The widespread adoption of just-in-time inventory management by manufacturers and retailers placed pressure on rail transport operators to run frequent services and to schedule as never before. With no stockpiles as a cushion against strikes, late running and breakdown, and with road hauliers ready to fill the vacuum, a new realism about standards in rail freight inevitably dawned.

DEREGULATING THE FREIGHT MARKET

The proliferation of 'private' (non-state) carriers under deregulation and splitting the infrastructure from train operation has been more significant to freight than it has been in the passenger market. Freed from the vertical integration that previously was the European model for running railways, and with public sector carriers forced into competition, there has been a proliferation of new companies entering the market for haulage contracts.

"The resultant 'empty leg' of returning vehicles represent costs that either reduce the bottom line and/or effectively increase charges to the customer."

Not all have succeeded and there have been many mergers and formation of consortia like European Bulls. Nevertheless, evidence indicates that the deregulation process, where allowed to function, has seen prices to customers become more attractive, with a stimulus to delivering at contracted standards being greater than previously.

Also a challenge to the shipping and aviation industries, where loadings only exist in one direction, the resultant 'empty leg' of returning vehicles represent costs that either reduce the bottom line and/or effectively increase charges to the customer. This is most likely with the transport of bulk goods in specialised vehicles, as with the movement of coal or aggregates.

However, with the motivation of reward more discernable perhaps than under public ownership, for rail operators who can get a 'back haul', the operating economics are further transformed.

NEW LINES FOR RAIL FREIGHT USE

The phrase 'side-tracked' entered the English language from American railroading, whereby slower or less important trains would be held in a parallel siding (UK: loop) to allow the passage of others. In North America it was usually freight that got the priority while in Europe it was passenger services that got right of way. Either way, there was always a loser. Even today, conflicts of interest remain such as the freight operators who are unable to deploy longer and more efficient trains due to siding that are too short.

By-passing higher level, longer and more energy-draining lines, Alpine base tunnels such as the 34km Lötschberg (opened 2007), the under construction St. Gotthard (opening due 2016 – at 57km, to become the world's longest) and those in development on the Brenner and Lyon-Torino routes are largely being justified by their contribution to easing and speeding the flow of freight.

Although more in the general press than freight, gains to passenger trains are more the by-product of these high cost projects. Indeed, for rail-based tourism, the new tunnels offer little in the way of benefit.

Opened in 2002, the Alameda Corridor in Los Angeles was indicative both of the importance of container traffic, notably from the Far East, and of the effectiveness of purpose-built freight lines. Longer but also much more problematic, the Betuweroute freight-only line was built to ease and speed the freight between the Rotterdam docks complex and onto the European network at the German border.

"Alpine base tunnels are largely being justified by their contribution to easing and speeding the flow of freight."

Created on no-less intensively developed land than the Alameda Corridor, the Betuweroute has struggled into limited operation well behind schedule in the face of legal and environmental challenges, certification of stock and procedures and technical problems.

After years of continued asset sweating, for the bulk freight market, the rise in load values of materials such as sand, road stone, phosphates and fuels has underpinned a willingness to invest in new infrastructure and equipment.

US rail freight companies have reinvested heavily in the present century as they have exploited the cost-per-tonnage advantages over road, the latter also having been hit by driver shortages.

Spurred also by concern over alleged inadequate support for the domestic mining industry, a A$650m investment in Australian carrier QR National means that it will double its loco and wagon

MODERN LOCOMOTIVES

Although having locomotives built specifically for goods haulage is a practice long-established around the world, it was not unusual to see the phrase 'relegated to freight duties' in reference to motive power that had seen out its best years on passenger trains. In a similar manner to charter and low-cost airlines using new fleets rather than flag-carrier cast-offs as in earlier years, it is freight operators that are shopping for new motive power.

With penalties for below-par delivery standards severe, not least being the loss of hard-won contracts, and with newer designs offering greater fuel efficiency and (usually) reliability, plus much increased haulage capability, it is not surprising that international order books for freight motive power are so full.

The ultra-reliable General Motors/EMD 'Class 66' spread from an initial UK application to being a pan-European workhorse largely because of such factors. In spite of the US home market not having been historically synonymous with fuel thriftiness, the giant General Electric is strongly promoting the efficiency of its Evolution series.

It has broken new ground in heavy haulage with the experimental Evolution hybrid diesel-electric prototype which offers the capacity to reuse stored braking energy, cutting fuel use and emissions by up to 10% and more efficient operation at high altitudes.

MORE INNER CITY FREIGHT BY RAIL

Although not falling into the 'heavy load' category, noteworthy as an example of rail's reach into the market is the use of light rail for freight. Dependent upon a comprehensive network (as in Zurich or with the more ambitious City Cargo scheme in Amsterdam trialled in 2007) or lines conveniently located to a particular need (as with the Volkswagen 'CarGo Tram' in Dresden), special vehicles can make use of existing infrastructure to reduce the number of delivery trucks active in city centres.

ROLLING HIGHWAYS: GOOD SENSE OR ILLOGICAL?

"The Evolution hybrid diesel-electric prototype offers the capacity to reuse stored braking energy, cutting fuel use and emissions by up to 10%."

With rail freight relatively able to bask in the glow of environmental righteousness, one method that divides industry opinions is the Rollende Landstrasse (RoLa) – rolling highway – also piggyback. This evolved in part due to prohibitions or high tax levels making driving the entire distance not an option. This is commonplace in Austria and for the transit of Switzerland, where the paired trailer and tractor unit boards specially built trains.

A similar 'Modalohr' format is being promoted by several European national operators whereby just the 'semi-trailer' is carried between special termini on vehicles each equipped with swivelling load platforms.

While creating or in some cases enforcing a demand for rail, also reducing road use and giving related environmental benefits, opponents point to the wastefulness of hauling the road vehicle deadweight, inefficient use of train lengths and the high cost and inflexibility of the dedicated rail wagons.

Over-arching criticisms of such systems are that they are founded upon taxation that is effectively being handed on to road hauliers, that they do nothing to stem the use and further development of heavy freight on the roads and furthermore starve the more conventional intermodal rail freight industry of business.