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Railwatch 069 - October 1996

Euro freeway for freight

The European Union is proposing to establish European freeways for freight as a way of saving rail freight from collapse. Six routes will be designated, four north-south and two east-west.

Britain will be linked through the Channel Tunnel and the West Coast main line. So far, this route has failed to live up to expectations of encouraging rail freight between Britain and the continent.

The commission is worried that rail's share of the European freight market will be down to only 5% by the year 2010 even though it is the most environmentally acceptable means of transporting freight. The transport commission's white paper identifies the problem as the national rail networks which fail to deliver the goods, even though the real problem is that rail pays most of its track costs while road hauliers get a virtually free ride thanks partly to European grants for road building!

As its analysis of the problem is flawed, its solution will probably not work either.

It is demanding that state rail power must be broken down to allow operators free access. This ignores the fact that in several European countries, state-owned rail networks have been successful in maintaining rail freight's share of the market. The document was ordered by transport commissioner Neil Kinnock who is demanding "market liberalisation".

It is the Euopean Union, of course, which is putting pressure on Switzerland and Austria to let more lorries through and complaining that these two sensible countries favour rail as a way of preventing the horrendous problems caused by road freight.

There was a little more realism on show at the Rail Freight Group conference in London in June. Jim Evans, railways director for Eurotunnel is responsible for developing the through freight trains using the tunnel. He painted a depressing picture of rail freight not having developed as quickly as expected. Even though national rail companies were allowed to run through freights, only Britain and France were doing so.

He pointed out that for a rail freight journey from England to Stuttgart, six loco changes were necessary and the train would have to go through six different signalling systems. Some of the segments of the journey were as short as 50 kilometres. But at least waste paper trains were travelling daily from Aylesford, Kent, to Germany.

Only RfD and SNCF have locos able to pull freight trains through but Eurotunnel was considering acquiring its own locos to enable third parties to send trains through.

He called for international action to improve the marketing and operation of freight trains throughout Europe. One organisation, involving CSX, DB and Netherlands Railways had just been set up specifically to operate trains on a Europe-wide basis.

But he admitted that the rail freight industry in general was not yet responsive enough or well organised enough for its customers. He pledged: "Not yet, but soon."

Steve Barlow of the Potter Group said he believed through rail trains had to pay twice the price per km compared to lorries on Le Shuttle.

Mr Evans admitted that Le Shuttle freight prices had been cut because of the price war with the ferries and it has had an impact on through rail. "We are looking at ways to offset this," he said. "There is not enough impetus in organising international rail traffic. Governments do not seem to accept the benefits of international rail traffic. They should be looked on as marginal benefits, icing on the cake."

Alan Bush of the Ministry of Defence said he wanted to see improvements so that it was easier for through trains to use the tunnel. He was responsible for getting tanks from Britain to Germany but had to "drive" them to Folkestone first because they were not allowed on a normal freight train going through the tunnel.

Mr Evans said Eurotunnel had appealed to the Government to change the rules governing restrictions on military equipment going through the tunnel but was not expecting any quick action.

On the domestic freight front, Ian Braybrook, managing director of English, Scottish and Welsh Railways said his company had a "can do" attitude and aimed to be a total provider for its customers. It would be a one-stop shop.

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