Corona crisis bright spot: a lot more space for freight on rails
With the cancellation of passenger trains in many countries during the ongoing corona crisis, an opportunity is born for the rail freight industry. The freed up capacity on some of the busiest lines are welcome among freight carriers, and so are the locomotives.
There is a lot more capacity for freight trains on the European railway network at the moment, said Akos Ersek, chief policy advisor for the UIRR during the RailFreight Webinar that took place on Friday 20 March. The topic of this webinar was the importance of intermodal transport during the coronavirus pandemic. Rail freight is proving to be key to keep the economy running, while many other sectors are facing cutbacks on staff and operations.
The same goes for passenger trains. In most European countries, people are urged to stay home and therefore train traffic is reduced significantly. In the Netherlands, for example, a reduction to 35 per cent of the usual capacity commenced this weekend. In the extreme case of Italy there is no passenger traffic at all.
“Infrastructure managers in various countries are currently investigating how they could re-arrange allocated train paths”, says Ersek. This is very important work, and experimental work, as it is a completely new situation.”
In fact, Norwegian infrastructure manager BaneNOR has implemented a new set of priority rules favouring rail freight traffic, responding to the corona crisis. The rules state that when it is necessary to prioritise trains, freight trains rather than passenger trains are given first priority. These rules have been effective since 13 March 2020. Also in the UK there are talks of how passenger traffic could be reduced while serving a more efficient operation of rail freight.
While train path allocation is one thing, the rail freight industry is looking at another potential benefit. “There is a shortage of train drivers; is it not possible to employ drivers from passenger trains for freight operations?”, a webinar subscriber asks.
Ersek replies that this is possible indeed, but not as easy as it sounds. “The challenge here is line knowledge. A driver needs to know where he is going, and be familiar with the route.” As rail freight usually covers longer distances and crosses borders, this is somewhat different from a passenger journey.”
However, according to Dutch rail freight lobbyist Hans-Willem Vroon, it is not possible at all, neither needed at the moment. “There is currently no shortage of freight train drivers, and it is impossible to deploy passenger train drivers for rail freight in the short term. Passenger train drivers do not have the required equipment awareness, nor the technical knowledge of wagon and train. They also do not have the authority to connect and disconnect locomotives pulling a freight train.”