Interview

The new rail planning system in Sweden is causing mayhem

Image: Green Cargo

The Swedish rail freight industry is currently struggling to adapt to the new planning system implemented by Trafikverket, the government agency responsible for the country’s rail network. RailFreight.com interviewed Shad Hallam, Head of Network Management at Green Cargo, the state-owned rail freight company in Sweden, to better understand what is going on.

As Hallam explained, Trafikverket launched a new planning system with the 2023 train plan. The main purpose of the new system, defined as market-based planning of capacity (MPK), was to make the planning of rail capacity smoother and improve the IT tools involved. “The project had the ambition of freeing up the rail networks full capacity and improve punctuality and service disruption”, Hallam said. However, the implementation of the new system is not bringing the hoped results. On the contrary, it is causing problems for Green Cargo and the other rail freight operators in Sweden.

Image: Shad Hallam. © Green Cargo

“The main issues with MPK begin with the system being launched without full functionality, and without sufficient testing”, he pointed out. For example, the time needed to plan rail capacity takes longer with the new system than it did with the old one. Hallam listed three more problems caused by the introduction of this new planning system that led to the 2023 train plan being late and incomplete.

What are the main problems with Trafikverket’s new system?

First, the so-called System M has not been delivered yet. This system provides the functionality required to plan and/or amend special transport services, including dangerous goods and heavy freight. As Hallam underlined, these kinds of services represent 70 per cent of Green Cargo trains. He added that the problem is likely not going to be fixed soon enough: “last week it was announced that the system delivery is delayed until October”. The main point made by Hallam concerning System M is that it clearly shows how freight traffic is not being prioritised at all compared to passengers.

The second main issue identified by Hallam is the process of capacity planning. As he claimed, Swedish law requires that the planning of maintenance works on the rail infrastructure must be communicated with 18 weeks of notice. “In recent weeks the information around maintenance works has been delivered days if not hours ahead of time, and often is still incomplete or incorrect. ​​Late changes increased by a factor of 8 in April, leading to train cancellations, ineffective tours and overtime”. Rail freight is most impacted by this because work is often carried out at night, when freight trains run. Green Cargo is asking to have at least 40 days of notice for changes in capacity.

Finally, Hallam stated that the MPK includes changes to the logic of train identification numbers. However, these changes were never communicated to the industry. “The effect of this was that business-to-business data interfaces did not work, and that information was corrupted”, Hallam stressed. As for the other two issues, this mostly impacts the rail freight sector.

How has Green Cargo been impacted?

As Hallam stated, Green Cargo has been significantly impacted by the somewhat failed implementation of MPK. “A year-on-year volume decline of 12 per cent was experienced last month and is accelerating as maintenance works increase during the warmer months”. As he explained, most of the maintenance works in Sweden are in fact carried out in the summer, since during the winter it is not always possible due to the weather conditions.

Another factor that impacts Green Cargo’s wallet because of this is the management of drivers. Because of the poor organisation and communication from Trafikverket concerning capacity planning, many trains are being delayed. As Hallam puts it, “a train that requires one driver may now require three”. This is because the train drivers’ shifts cannot be prolonged just because the train is not moving.

Possible solutions for freight

MPK’s plan for operators to apply for capacity in 2023 was introduced at the beginning of 2022, as Hallam specified. “When Trafikverket missed critical capacity planning milestones during 2022 it became apparent that the MPK project was suffering delays and performance issues”, he said. Rail freight operators came together and suggested to Trafikverket that the only viable alternative is to reduce maintenance works to what is considered essential. However, Hallam said that the industry warnings were ignored since Trafikverket only removed around 50 out of 1,000 maintenance projects.

Other than this, the best solution would be to start thinking about next year’s plan already. For example, Hallam said that the maintenance works for the first 18 weeks of next year should be communicated as soon as possible. This way, companies would have enough time to plan the first months of 2024 around these construction works. Moreover, Hallam and Green Cargo are urging Trafikverket to fully develop the System M and to solve the issues regarding train identification numbers.

Finally, rail freight should have a higher priority over passenger traffic and Trafikverket should be held accountable when they fail to deliver. As Hallam added, “the consequences land upon the train operators and their customers”. In order to achieve this, a new agreement between the industry and Trafikverket is necessary to make this relationship less one-sided. Hallam continued by saying that the process for 2024 is going well so far. “However, I believe that without a significant reduction in the ambition levels for track maintenance Trafikverket will not have the manpower to succeed in the delivery of MPK”, he concluded.

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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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