Middle Rhine Valley remains closed for freight traffic till Easter

Güterzug im Mittelrheintal mit zwei E-Loks Baureihe 185 (Erzzug Rotterdam - Linz) bei Oberwesel (linke Rheinstrecke)

Following the landslide at the Middle Rhine Valley on 15 March, disruption of freight traffic on the European Rhine-Alpine corridor has intensified. DB Netz has said that regular traffic is expected to resume around Easter at the earliest. Sven Flore, Vice Chairman of Network of European Railways (NEE), has a different opinion on that. According to him, there is too little information, no reliable forecasts for the duration of the disruption and no clear concept, coupled with insufficient telephone availability.

A landslide at the Middle Rhine Valley near Kestert is blocking the underlying railway, with no traffic possible currently. Last week, 5,000 cubic metres of stones and rubble came down, not only affecting the rails but also blocking part of the B42 federal highway between Kamp-Bornhofen and Kaub. Geologists and special forces are securing the area and undertake full-steam operations to unblock the way for transportation.

In the meantime, however,  trains must follow long diversions that prove unproductive in terms of efficiency and timeliness. Simultaneously, shippers have been expressing concerns from their side and might soon lose trust in rail. The core problem does not lie in managing the current situation only, but in the lack of agility in similar cases by the infrastructure manager DB Netz AG, says NEE.

NEE is applying harsh criticism on Deutsche Bahn since it believes that the landslide measures are inconsistent and harmful for rail freight. However, that is not the only case of poor crisis management since there are similar examples from 2017, 2019 and 2020. “Once again, we do not have the impression that dealing with malfunctions enjoys the necessary attention at DB Netz”, added Flore.

Middle Rhine Valley landslide

Inconsistent diversions

The infrastructure manager has offered quite long diversion routes that add approximately 300 extra kilometres of travelling. Trains transiting between the North Sea Ports and South Germany, Switzerland and North Italy are now passing through Kestert, Siegen and Saarbrücken. These routes prevent rail companies from coordinating planning for personnel, locomotives and terminals and result in a “domino effect of delayed departures”, underlined Flore.

Map of diversions. Source: NEE

What is more surprising, though for most rail companies operating through this rail corridor, is DB Netz’s avoidance to divert traffic through Rhine’s left bank. According to Flore, DB should bring traffic via this undamaged route and prioritise freight over passenger traffic. “If the route capacity is exhausted, some local trains can be replaced by buses. Above all, the relentlessly continuing program of three ICE / IC trains per two hours and direction can be limited temporarily in lockdown without major damage”, he added.

Pressure for fundamental change

“Above all, the infrastructure manager must minimise the consequences of unavoidable disruptions in the future. The approach taken by DB Netz AG to provide extensive detours as the only “Plan B” for freight traffic in the event of a fault does not meet the challenge”, concluded Flore.

Suppose a similar event occurs in the future, NEE continues. In that case, the freight railways fear a loss of confidence of industrial shippers, not only on this international rail corridor, which has the highest rail freight traffic in Europe. According to NEE, shippers might not show the same patience levels if mishandling and half-measures keep disturbing rail cargo flows. Consequently, in a hypothetical yet realistic scenario, the goods could relocate from rail to road, which would have detrimental effects on rail freight and EU policies like the Green Deal.

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is editor of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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