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August 01, 2011

Crossrail looks to the future

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Swiss open-access railfreight operator Crossrail is enjoying an enviable run of success as its CEO Jeroen Le Jeune explains to regional editor Anitra Green.
 
THE European market is not easy for Swiss-based railfreight operators at the moment. With the weakness of the euro against the Swiss franc, they are all finding their profits from international business shrinking as their costs rise.

Crossrail, however, seems to have bucked the trend, as CEO Mr Jeroen Le Jeune boasts: "Crossrail is Switzerland's third largest railfreight company and the only one to make a profit."
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Originally founded as an integrated operator by Mittelland Regional Transport (RM), Switzerland's third largest railway, it is now owned 75% by Le Jeune Capital & Partners, Switzerland, and 25% by the Swiss intermodal freight company Hupac. The company has two subsidiaries, Crossrail Italia and Crossrail Benelux. It became a pure rail operator several years ago, and was recently restructured with a new logo and a new slogan: "going the extra mile."

Crossrail runs terminal-to-terminal intermodal services mostly on the Belgium/ Germany/Switzerland/Italy axis and between the Benelux countries and Poland. It operates under its own licence in five countries: Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. "We also operate in France, under sub-contract to French National Railways (SNCF). But we now have the licence, and will start running our own services as soon as the drivers are trained," explains Le Jeune.

Le Jeune attributes Crossrail's success mainly to European customers' desire for an efficient, neutral, privately-owned company offering railfreight services on international intermodal corridors. "We were the first private company to offer cross-border, end-to-end services with our own trains," he points out. The company prides itself on being flexible and punctual, with healthy double-digit growth in revenue even in the recent economic crisis. Last year, Crossrail recorded over 6.5 billion tonne-km, and carried more than 7 million tonnes, 20% up on 2009.

Maintaining efficient and punctual services on this scale in Europe is not easy, however. While paying tribute to the advantages that rail liberalisation has brought, Le Jeune obviously thinks it has not gone far enough, especially with regard to terminal and port access. Many of the routes he would like to develop are out of the question because Crossrail is not allowed to use certain routes or terminals - a situation that would be inconceivable for road hauliers, for example.

Another problem is the proposal by the Swiss government to revise the train path pricing system with increases of up to 30% for international block trains in transit, starting at the beginning of 2013. This has drawn howls of protest from across the industry, and Crossrail is no exception. In addition the proposed train path pricing system is over-complicated, Le Jeune says, and makes calculation of rates difficult. "It's a shame, as it could well have an adverse impact on Switzerland's modal shift policy," he says.

Le Jeune would also like Switzerland to follow other European countries and separate infrastructure from train operations. "I would really like to see the Swiss railway infrastructure as an independent unit, separate from Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), then we could have a voice," he says. "Admittedly, the huge investments being made in the infrastructure in Switzerland are wonderful, and a lot better than in Germany or Italy. Switzerland is running ahead here, but they should not go too fast, which is what is happening. They should make the rules of usage simpler with flat rates, instead of introducing complexities such as different rates during peak hours."

As to the future, while on the one hand Le Jeune says he wants "to build up and consolidate what we already have" he is also planning new routes. A service via Poland to Russia is already running in collaboration with partners. "We also have plans for more services through the Alps, but the main bottleneck is capacity," he says. "Between July and December 2012, work will be carried out on the Simplon section, which will put a severe limit on capacity on this route." At least this is only a temporary setback to Crossrail's ambitions.

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