2013 was a breakthrough year for Europorte, the railfreight subsidiary of Eurotunnel. For the first time the group reported a positive net result, a feat the company says proves "railfreight is not a business doomed to run at a loss."

Indeed the group reported revenues of €239m in 2013, a €33m increase over 2012, and an Ebidta of €19m, up from €2m in 2012. This reflects the success of measures to improve productivity which began in 2011 as well as lower start-up costs for new contracts secured across its operations. The results are cumulative of all of its subsidiaries - GB Railfreight (GBRf), Socorail, Europorte Proximité, Europorte Channel, and Europorte France - with GBRf and Europorte France now ranked third in terms of volumes in their respective domestic markets.

Despite these encouraging results, the situation in France is a major hindrance to Europorte France's overall performance and its ability to grow. Speaking during a round table discussion at InnoTrans in Berlin on September 25, Europorte CEO Mr Pascal Sainson (centre) listed three main challenges to increasing railfreight in the French market.

TLWNovFirst, he said the condition of French infrastructure is a major concern. "Often freight is only allowed to access freight-only lines," he said. "The cost of maintaining and restoring these lines has grown tremendously and the French government is no longer that concerned about investing funds in them. This is a huge concern to operators because we could lose a large part of our business activities if we are unable to run here. "

The second problem is interoperability in Europe. Sainson expressed particular reservations over meeting obligations to install ERTMS equipment onboard Europorte locomotives. "We currently run 14 trains to Antwerp and on January 1 2016 we will need to have onboard ETCS equipment," Sainson said. "The investment is huge and still some of these systems will not be compatible with everywhere we go, given France and Germany's reluctance to adopt ERTMS. There is real concern about investing e1m or more and whether it is really worth it."

Finally he bemoaned the impact maintenance activities are having in securing overnight paths on a passenger-dominated railway. He compared the situation in Britain, where Network Rail uses advanced diagnostics trains to monitor track conditions, and France where people continue to walk the track to carry out physical inspections. "In France a massive amount of capacity is lost to this type of monitoring and inspection," Sainson said.

Maquaire (left) and Toubol (right) echoed Sainson's concerns and called for a change in philosophy and approach in France. Specifically they said developing and introducing new technologies to overcome the challenges posed by these restrictions would free up capacity and allow the operation of longer and faster freight trains.

Areas for improvement

Maquaire said it is up to research institutes like Railenium, which was founded in 2011 as a public-private railway research organisation, to present solutions to these problems. For example with 600 of the 1100 tunnels in France unable able to accept GB1 loading-gauge intermodal trains, this is one obvious area for improvement. He also suggested that the problem with under-maintained track on freight-only lines might be solved by introducing slab rather ballasted track, although the high capital cost of this measure would make it difficult to secure funding.

Introducing innovative braking systems for freight trains was another solution that received significant attention. In contrast with the United States and Australia where electronically-controlled pneumatic braking (ECP), which adjusts the speed of individual wagons during braking allowing the operation of longer and heavier freight trains, is becoming the norm, European freight operators continue to rely on air brakes.

"Freight trains cannot compete with passenger trains when they run at an average speed of 80km/h and use braking systems which take a lot longer to stop the train," Toubol says. "Acceleration is also a lot slower which takes capacity out of the network. Railenium's research is looking at how speeds of 140km/h might be achieved in Europe."

However, Toubol pointed out that many of the suggested solutions are long-term fixes and that consideration must be given to short-term projects which will offer immediate benefits. He said that simplifying rules and regulations could be one way of encouraging more freight traffic by altering track maintenance schedules and techniques in France which would increase capacity.

Inevitably though, Sainson, Maquaire and Toubol agreed that any changes that are instituted must have support from the top, which given the strength of the French rail unions, is never easy to achieve. Without political backing, they admit freight services will continue to struggle to compete in France, to the detriment of companies like Europorte.

"Everyone in the industry wants this but there must be a change in mentality in politics so that freight trains are given greater priority than at present so we can make processes work for us," Sainson said. "As economic activities shift to the east of Europe, freight trains must play a role in this development. We must be considered a vehicle and a vector that can boost and support that development as it happens."