SNCF twin coalSNCF twin coal wagon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.wagon

How can Germany keep up with the rising demand for coal?

The German rail transport infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the increasing demand for alternative fuels, especially coal, to replace gas. The German government is working on solutions, namely the prioritisation of coal transportation.

Demand for coal has experienced a sharp increase since the start of the war in Ukraine and the consequent rise in gas prices. Steag, a German power producer, highlighted that, if coal rail transportation is not prioritised, it will be difficult to ensure sufficient capacity. However, companies that do not deal with coal, including Hupac, are concerned about the impact that coal prioritisation may have on their current schedules.

Steag’s problems

Daniel Mühlenfeld, the press spokesman from Steag, said that the company is facing “difficulties in obtaining sufficient train capacities for our Saarland power plants”.

One of the main problems he highlighted is that there is an obligation to have sufficient coal stock for 30 days. This law is creating additional difficulties because “the deadline is the same for all hard-coal fired power plant operators, therefore lots of transport capacity will be needed within a short period of time”.

Another cause for such problems may be found in the ongoing works on the Rhine-Alpine Corridor and the Scandinavian-Mediterranean Corridor. Mühlenfeld commented that “delays caused by construction work at one place often cause further problems within the whole system. This is even more so if some hundred additional freight trains will be needed to bring great amounts of hard coal to the plant sites within a relatively short period of time”.

One of the possible solutions pointed out by Mühlenfeld would be delivery by barge. However, this would not be possible for all places such as for example, the Saarland power plant.

Prioritising coal transportation

The German government is working on a plan to adjust the rail network in the short term. The idea is to prioritise the transport of sources of alternative fuels through the allocation of free train paths, when available.

Another solution would be to give priority to coal trains over passenger trains. However, Peter Westenberger, General Manager of the European Railways Network, emphasised that the process of prioritising coal rail transportation will take time.

“The problems with railway grid infrastructure are not expected to be solved within the next few years. Therefore, transport logistics will continue to be a complex undertaking. We are convinced that prioritisation for coal transport is feasible and the stress due to the coal stock obligations can be reduced,” Mühlenfeld added.

On the other hand, the prioritisation of coal may be detrimental to other rail freight companies that do not necessarily deal with coal. Sources from Hupac, which does not transport coal, say that the company is concerned about the impact that the prioritisation would have.

Despite understanding that this is a national problem, Hupac underlines that prioritising coal transport may have negative consequences on existing contracts and booked container trains. Hupac mentioned that it is necessary to have a transparent public debate to help fix the problem.

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Author: Marco Raimondi

Marco Raimondi is an editor of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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