Pocket wagon ban extends to all of Denmark
The Danish Accident Investigation Board (AIB) extended the ban on pocket wagons after the investigation of the safety incident on the Great Belt Bridge on the 13th of January. The new general ban will last for fourteen days at least, and applies to the entire country of Denmark. The initial ban applied only to the bridge where the incident took place, with 27 January as a deadline. AIB also issued a safety alert to other European safety organisations concerning the specific type of kingpin lock. The rail freight transport sector expects a negative impact on business, especially related to intermodal services. Companies like Hupac have already looked for alternative routes.
AIB announced that during the investigations, which have not yet concluded, it found that “the lock of the pocket wagon was in the correct locking position while the stool lock was well-functioning, maintained and lubricated as prescribed”. Additionally, the lock was not the same type as in the big accident of 2019. However, it seems that the specific type of lock has “no or limited locking effects when pulled in the vertical direction”.
In order to relief the impact on the intermodal industry, Hupac came up with an alternative solution to maintain traffic for containers and swap bodies through Denmark. It will use the city of Taulov as a gateway to the rest of Europe, while if needed it will “set up alternative routes for trailers with rerouting from/to Hamburg and other terminals close to the German-Danish border”.
In the meantime, Stena Line is offering to take up trains on its service between Trelleborg (Sweden) and Rostock (Germany). “We have 1 kilometer of track capacity each on both ferries, the MS Mecklenbrug-Vorpommern and the MS Skåne, and travel back and forth up to 40 times a week. In this way, we can make a major contribution to ensuring that freight trains can run across the entire continent without stopping for reloading, even if the overland route fails”, said Katrin Verner, Freight Commercial Manager at Stena Line earlier.
The extended ban on pocket wagons with semi-trailers can be detrimental for intermodal transportation. As Hector Rail stated to RailFreight.com “the redundancy through Denmark is an issue and a total ban, as in this case, has a negative effect on rail freight”. DB Cargo also said that further measures after the incident should be thoroughly assessed, as they could harm the business. Furthermore, Hupac noted that it is critical “to clearly understand the underlying reasons and then introduce appropriate measures”.
The Danish authorities’ strong response may result from concerns related to the fatal accident on the Great Belt Bridge two years ago. On 2 January 2019, a dangerous situation involving a loose semi-trailer resulted in eight fatalities among passengers in another train passing the bridge. Specifically, the passenger train was hit by parts of the roof of truck trailers on a bypassing freight train, which passed on the bridge’s higher section.
The safety incident of 13th January 2021 on the same bridge, even if involving a different kingpin lock, confirmed the authorities’ concerns and resulted in the total ban. Of course, operational safety is the number one goal for all parts involved. Consequently, Danish authorities will assess the issue better to find out a possible solution. Working closely with the rail freight sector’s representatives could prove immensely helpful in this case and result in a safety framework fitting everyone’s needs.
DB Cargo response
After the incident, DB Cargo Scandinavia exclusively stated to RailFreight.com that the train involved in the safety incident followed all the needed protocols before its trip. Moreover, CCTV footage from the bridge’s cameras showed that the bridge was subject to strong wind currents that slightly lifted the train’s front part during the incident. As a result, a train socket got partly off from one of the pocket wagons.
The ‘vertical pulling’ theory that the AIB explained could probably relate to these conditions. However, it is still unclear whether this is proof that semi-trailers on pocket wagons are generally unsafe. Since similar reports have mainly taken place in Denmark and the Great Belt Bridge, maybe pocket wagons do not constitute the real issue.
Reports state that strong, accelerating winds on the north side of the bridge are very common. One would expect that good operation management would be of priority to ensure the safety of trips. However, the investigation presents some ambiguous findings. For instance, despite the particular conditions that apply to the area, there are only two wind measurement instruments on the 18 kilometre-long bridge.
Despite the common acceptance that the bridge’s north side presents stronger weather phenomena, both measurement instruments lie on its south side. Simultaneously, the bridge does not have windshields that would slow down winds and secure trains’ operation. Could these particular circumstances be the real stake here?
According to the EU Agency for Railways’ records, there have only been two accidents with pocket wagons during the last 13 years. This type of rail transport has an exemplary safety record in Denmark. The accident on 2 January 2019 was the first-ever reported accident in the country that involved a pocket wagon. Even the AIB has stated that there are no reports in the rest of Europe concerning pocket wagon transportation. Denmark seems to constitute one of the very few sources of such complains primarily related to the Great Belt Bridge.
On the other hand, other intermodal operators clarified that the situation seems unique. For instance, Hupac stated that “we are using many of these pocket wagons in our entire European network on a day-to-day basis. During the past operations, we never had a comparable situation. This leads us to the assumption of a stable and secure technique”.
After all, the Danish authorities adopted the total ban measure, and the industry is currently trying to adapt in the new and challenging situation. Since the first ban of pocket wagons from the Great Belt Bridge a couple of weeks ago, some companies suspended operations on this route, but Intermodal traffic to and from Sweden was not completely stranded.
Hupac’s initiative to use Taulov as an alternative gateway indicates the intermodal sector’s quick reflex concerning the situation. Hopefully, more companies will follow the same example to avoid losses and relief the sector that is hit hard. The wish of everyone is that the ban will not continue after the predefined time framework, because then operators and their customers will have to undergo a complete re-planning of their services.