June 01, 2016

Capacity and reliability key to unlocking growth in Sweden

Written by 
  • Print
  • Email

Björn Westerberg, CEO of the Association of Swedish Train Operating Companies tells Keith Barrow how a blend of short-term measures to improve operational performance and a long-term approach to investment will be needed to meet future demand on the country's rail network.

STOCKHOLM's City Line is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the capacity challenges facing Sweden's railways, and the benefits of a coordinated response. When it opens next July, the City Line will double mainline capacity through central Stockholm, relieving one of the country's busiest lines and opening the door to improvements in suburban and regional services.

 

However, beyond the capital many other bottlenecks continue to limit the capacity and reliability of the network, stifling the prospects for new and improved services which could help to increase rail's market share. According to Björn Westerberg, CEO of the Association of Swedish Train Operating Companies (Astoc), major engineering projects like the City Line are only part of the solution to a problem which warrants simultaneous action on several fronts.

TLW Bjorn Westerberg bild1Westerberg is keen to improve conditions for rail freight and argues that Sweden will only meet its modal shift targets for freight traffic through improving the performance of rail transport. "Transferring 10% of lorry journeys over 300km would double rail freight and take 1.4 million lorries off the road each year," he explains. "Do we have infrastructure and operations of the standard required to deliver this? A national approach will be needed to make it happen."

The association's recent Vision for Freight 2050 market analysis identified 10 steps to make rail freight more responsive to the needs of customers. "The first priorities are increasing the reliability of infrastructure and operations, and improving utilisation," he explains. "These two factors have the potential to make rail freight profitable. To reach that point we need a national infrastructure maintenance strategy and a national rail freight strategy with a clear and coherent approach to maintenance and investment."

A priority identified in this report is streamlining the capacity allocation system. "The allotment of paths needs to be much more efficient," Westerberg says. "This is still a pen-and-paper process and the involvement of human factors is too great. The needs of international traffic in particular seem to be ignored in the infrastructure manager's calculations, which I find amazing. There is a need for a whole-network view on infrastructure utilisation."

Higher capacity freight trains would also generate efficiency gains for the sector. In April Hector Rail began operating 730m-long freight trains on the Hallsberg/ Katrineholm - Malmö corridor, one of Sweden's key freight arteries, following completion of a project to lengthen loops and double-track sections.

Westerberg is critical of Trafikverket's national ERTMS programme, arguing that it will burden operators with additional costs in return for marginal benefits. "We need to postpone the rollout until we have a stable specification and technology that costs less and functions better than what is available now," he says. "I welcome the specification freeze at Baseline 3.5.0 but we will still end up with less capacity than we have now in Sweden if we go with this version. ETCS doesn't simplify border crossings, there are no standard products, and operators are left to cover the costs of onboard equipment. As long as ERTMS increases costs for our members I will continue to oppose it because from our point of view, there is no business case."

Westerberg sees opportunities for significant capacity gains through the development of a high-speed network linking the Stockholm region with Gothenburg and Malmö, which would relieve the congested Western Main Line. With much of the current public debate focussing on the cost of the project, Westerberg argues that high-speed is well within the country's fiscal means. "Sweden has a good credit rating and it would be easy for the government to finance this project," he says. "High-speed is vital for the future of Sweden and the future of our railways. Traffic needs to be segregated for operations to be profitable and a recent government analysis shows that taking long-distance passenger traffic away from key freight routes will improve the prospects for rail freight and help us to meet our carbon reduction goals."

However, Westerberg warns that high-speed cannot be built at the expense of existing lines, which also need investment. "We need to frame high-speed outside the current budget for rail infrastructure to protect investment in the conventional network," he says.

Sweden was the pioneer of rail market liberalisation in Europe, but fragmentation of the industry has created challenges, particularly when it comes to achieving common objectives. Astoc hopes to encourage closer working between industry stakeholders through the Railway Sector Coordination Forum, which recently held its first board meeting and is now seeking an independent chairman. Partners in the forum include operators such as SJ and Green Cargo, infrastructure manager Trafikverket, stations, railway property company Jernhusen, and Astoc, which represents its 43 members. "Despite the fragmentation of the industry there is a spirit of cooperation. We are sitting around the table to work together and make improvements collectively," Westerberg says.

Get the latest rail news

IRJ Rail Brief newsletter covers global railway news