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Editor in chief: Angelo Scorza
11/09/17 08:37

Rastatt crisis open the key to a continental strategy

The representatives of the European rail logistics operators sent an open letter to European Commission for Transport

One more month of turmoil before the disruption of international rail service caused by the accident occurred at the Rastatt link in Germany can be sorted out.

Meanwhile representatives of the European rail logistics operators sent an open letter to European Commission for Transport, as well as to the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, to find a general solution to avoid such similar troubles can occur in the future.

The text sent to EU Commissioner Violeta Bulc in Brussels and to Federal minister Alexander Dobrindt in Berlin, with copy to Transport Ministers of another 7 European countries (François Bellot, Belgium; Elisabeth Borne, France; Graziano Delrio, Italy; François Bausch, Luxemburg; Melanie Schultz van Haegen, The Netherlands; Jörg Leichtfried, Austria; Doris Leuthard, Switzerland) as well as to EU Agency for Railways, Josef Doppelbauer, says in essence that the emergency of rail freight transportation is indeed an emergency of economy.

The Rhine valley railways will be interrupted for almost two months because of Rastatt construction site accident; once the route is reopened the announced date of 7 October 2017, railway logistics will have suffered immense damage. Railways achieve only a quarter of transport volumes and intermodal transport is particularly disadvantaged.

For the 200 freight trains a day that usually run in the Rhine valley in September, there is in theory diversion capacity for 150 freight trains via Stuttgart-Singen, Brenner and Alsace according to the infrastructure managers. The Rhine valley line is the main line for intermodal traffic in Europe. Around 50% of the trade between Northern Europe and Italy via Switzerland is normally performed by intermodal transport on this axis. At present, the freight railways can manage only 25% of the normal volumes on the re-routings via Germany, France and Austria.

Intermodal transport is particularly disadvantaged: the diversion volumes of this strongest market segment reach less than 15% of its habitual volume. The lack of locomotive drivers in the Brenner and Alsace region is the main reason why most of these capacities are not used even three weeks after the disruption. Because of the difficult operational conditions of the diversions via Stuttgart-Singen, the majority of the trains have to be cancelled or run with extreme delays of several days.

The consequences are dramatic; the European system of rail logistics is about to collaps. Transhipment terminals of intermodal transport along the Rhine Alpine Corridor are congested with containers and are refusing to accept additional loading units. Supply shortages and production stops have already occurred in large numbers of plants north and south of the Alps, a very large number of production sites are about to come to a standstill. Damages running into billions arise for the economy, for industry, for the railways, operators and transport companies, part of the rail traffic will be lost to the road, and it will not be possible to win it back for years.

In essence, the EU modal shift aims are endangered, decades of investments in the railway system will be damaged or destroyed.

The Rastatt disruption and the current crisis management is a perfect example of what is wrong with European rail freight transportation: on important freight transport corridors, there are not enough diversion routes that are planned as stand-by and that can be readily used in case of traffic disruptions. A transnational corridor perspective for infrastructure planning and management is still very basic. There is no international coordination of construction sites on the railway infrastructure. Alternative and diversion routes that are suitable for freight traffic were partially or completely closed during the construction of the risky tunnelling in Rastatt because of other construction works.            National railway particularities make it difficult to divert to lines of other countries. German-speaking train drivers, for example, cannot be deployed on the diversion lines via France. There is no structure for international crisis management in rail freight transport; the much needed day-to-day coordination between national infrastructure managers, railways, terminals and operators  is extremely slow and inefficient.

It is still unclear for many railway experts to understand why the total closure of the line could not have been avoided or significantly shortened by the building of a temporary, single track replacement line immediately after the damage of the Rhine valley line due to construction works. In order to avoid the blackout of the system and a permanent loss of trust of the market, the following measures are needed: establishment of a task force at ministerial and/or EU level with crisis competencies, including the infrastructure managers; support to the railway undertakings to perform short-term reinforcement of the driver pool on the diversion lines via Brenner, France, Stuttgart-Singen-Schaffhausen area by releases in favour of freight traffic: by this measure the diversion capacity can be increased from 20% today to 50-60% within 2-3 days; simplified operating procedures on the re-routing lines, with the coordination of ERA European Union Agency for Railways; examination of exceptional, temporary measures to support the freight companies that are directly affected by the Rastatt interruption and that face severe existential problems; implementation of a special commission for the short-term review of the largest and most serious freight traffic blockade in recent decades, including contingency plans, construction site planning, prioritisation of traffic.

The document was signed, among others, by: European Association for forwarding, transport, logistics and customs services; European Chemical Transport Association; European Rail Freight Association; European Shippers’ Council; International Union of Wagon Keepers; International Union for Road-Rail combined Transport; Cargo Forum Schweiz; VAP Cargorail, ANITA, Assologistica, Assofer, Fercargo.