How can capacity be improved on the Rhine-Alpine Corridor?

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

The Rhine-Alpine corridor could be considered the backbone of European rail freight. It’s already the most heavily used freight route on the continent but is nonetheless far from reaching its full potential. In one of the RailFreight Networking Days sessions last week, the big question was:  is it possible to improve capacity on the corridor and how?

The Rhine-Alpine corridor connects the North-South axis passing through significant transport and economic hubs in Europe. Consequently, it can play a central role in the modal shift and environmental objectives. However, a quarter of the railway capacity is not being used at the moment, notes the host of the RailFreight event, Majorie van Leijen.

Guus de Mol, President at Rail Freight Corridor Rhine-Alpine EWIV and Paul Mazataud, head of rail freight at SNCF Reséau, discussed how this could be better at the event. Mazataud is also the new president of RailNetEurope (RNE), of which Guus de Mol has recently been re-elected as board member. You can watch the whole discussion below.

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Timetable redesign

Unfortunately, several aspects of the current way capacity is allocated do not work as well as people would like, says Mazataud. “Most capacity management was done in the last 2 years, which is quite late.” He also names a lack of standardisation, transparency, and coordination between infrastructure managers. Moreover, IT tools are not as modern as they would like to.

Infrastructure capacity can be used more efficiently, and this does not have to be by expanding or improving the actual infrastructure, he brings to the table. “Studies show that investing in better digital tools and capacity models for capacity management can lead to more capacity than investing in physical infrastructure.”

The timetable redesign (TTR), a project that started in 2014, is examining this. “We have to find a way the infrastructure managers can deliver a high-quality path to their clients without losing the ability to do the maintenance works. A path that is available all day during the year, robust and bookable at the right moment”, says Mazataud. RNE expects TTR to be implemented in 2025.

Too early for freight

Passenger trains are often prioritised over freight. Could TTR change that? Guus de Mol: “Absolutely, the idea is that capacity is safeguarded for the right party.” In the existing method, operators have to order everything for the next year already in April, he explains. Passenger operators can just run empty trains hoping people get in, but freight companies run only if they have a customer. April is much too early for freight, but if they don’t order it, there is no secure possibility of getting the capacity later. The idea of TTR is that the infrastructure manager, based on upfront analyses, keeps empty spaces, which freight companies can order when they need them.

As a result, will this not keep away new partners? According to Mazataud, this is to the contrary. “If we don’t do anything and keep the status quo with current capacity management, we will see many conflicts between requests of all new and old players. We need to assess the needs of all clients and plan early. This is especially important for certain routes where there is already a very dense number of trains.”

Ceneri Base Tunnel

Of course, infrastructure improvements are also of great importance and can result in great improvements for rail freight. One example is the Ceneri Base Tunnel through the Swiss Alps, which opened last September. “The impact of this is that we see that trains are longer”, says de Mol. “This is what we had foreseen for the Rhine-Alpine corridor 10 years ago. Freight trains from Italy and back used to be around 560 to 600 metres and now go easily from 650 to 690 metres. The bottleneck is now Germany and the Netherlands.”

What needs to be done now for the whole corridor? For that, de Mol’s answer is short: investments. “For example, in the Netherlands, most stations have no track switch of the right length. To make the Netherlands stable for trains of 740 metres, ProRail finished a programme of around 1 billion.” Construction works are, on the other hand, also a large factor of capacity changes. “You can’t avoid this, but infrastructure managers together with the ministries must think about how to get the network robust.”

Author: Esther Geerts

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