More than 30 rail operators currently use the corridor, running 35,000 international freight trains per year. Last year over 7 million km/day of train paths were allocated. The aim, according to RFC 2’s managing director Mr Guillaume Confais-Morieux, is to offer a one-stop-shop with pre-arranged train paths.
So far, more than €500m has been invested in the RFC 2 network, and the European Union (EU) plans to invest €6bn in over 60 renewal and development projects by 2030, with a view to improving interoperability and multimodality. Confais-Morieux says the aim is to improve the loading gauge to P400, run longer trains in Belgium, provide better communications in case of border delays, and install ERTMS on the entire network.
As far as terminals are concerned, a major step forward was achieved in July with the opening of a new intermodal terminal at Bettembourg-Dudelange in Luxembourg. Four times the size of the previous one, it is equipped with six 700m tracks, four of which are for containers and semi-trailers which can be lifted by crane, and two are for semi-trailers which cannot be lifted, which account for about 90% of the total semi-trailer fleet in Europe. Bettembourg-Dudelange is in a prime location at the crossroads of north-south and east-west transport routes, with 40% of Europe’s GDP within 500km and 80% of Europe’s industrial centres within one day’s reach.
The terminal can handle up to 12 intermodal and 16 rolling highway trains per day. Maximum capacity is 600,000 containers and trailers a year, with an estimated 225,000 units handled this year. Non-lifting semi-trailers are loaded using the Lohr system, where each wagon has a section that swivels through 30o to allow semi-trailers to be driven on board. A 300m-long train can be unloaded and loaded in this way in 36 minutes, according to Mr Hervé Morel, Lohr Industrie’s railway network director.
Two of the operators using RFC 2 are Swiss. BLS Cargo’s business is 85% international, comprising 40% via Germany, 20% via France, 30% rolling highway and 10% other (Italy), while SBB Cargo International operates in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and its home market in Switzerland, with a 35% market share of transalpine traffic.
Another player is TXCargostar Intermodal, part of TXLogistik, offering rail transport for road haulage companies through a Europe-wide network. According to Mr Norbert Rekers, regional sales director, Central Europe, the idea is to close the gap between road and rail. With this in mind, the Nikrasa loading system was developed in collaboration with Logistik Kompetenz Zentrum Prien. “What we really need is something simple to use in a normal terminal, everywhere,” he says. “People find it boring because it’s so simple, and it doesn’t cost much.” Here the semi-trailer is driven on to a terminal platform fitted with a transport platform, which then stays with the semi-trailer for the duration of the journey. This means it can be lifted in the same way as a semi-trailer, with no need for specially adapted yards. Nikrasa terminal platforms are stationed not only at Bettembourg but several other terminals ranging from Scandinavia to Trieste, Italy, and others are in the pipeline.
Another user of RFC 2 is Lineas, formerly SNCB Logistics. Since 2009, the management team has transformed a loss-making enterprise into one with sustainable growth, with the company breaking even for the first time in 2013. The aim, according to Lineas’ commercial director Mr Sam Bruynseels, is to achieve modal shift by offering direct, sustainable hinterland connections without extra congestion, and he plans to develop 20 new products by 2020 with conventional, wagon load and intermodal trains. “With Green Xpress Network (GXN), we are developing a service with fast direct frequent long-haul connections with bundled freight, complemented by first and last-mile services,” he says.
Contargo is a regular user of both RFC 1 and 2. The Duisburg-based tri-modal logistics provider operates in six countries, handling 90,000 TEU a year. It plans to develop the potential of south Italian ports, real-time tracking and tracing systems, and the projected tri-modal terminal at Basle North with intelligent loading.
However, the reliability of the RFC network suffered a severe setback as a result of subsidence of the track at Rastatt, between Karslruhe and Basle, leading to closure of the line for over seven weeks. Germany was unprepared for this eventuality; some of the possible alternative routes in Germany were closed for engineering work, and RFC 2, as one of the obvious relief routes, had neither capacity nor the flexibility. Variously described as “an absolute catastrophe” and “a complete nightmare,” it led to huge delays and massively increased costs not only in Germany but all the neighbouring countries, as well as highlighting the basic need for creative solutions with more cooperation, simpler procedures and more innovation.
“We were a bit luckier than some as we are tri-modal,” says Mr Marc Hunziker, regional sales manager Hochrhein at Contargo, adding: “Wagons got through, but at vastly increased cost; we relied on the waterway in Basle, at the Rhine/rail facility in Kleinhünigen.”
Lineas was also comparatively lucky, as Bruynseels explains: “We have access to two routes to Italy, the second being through France, so we could deliver, though with lower volumes.”
SBB Cargo International’s head of sales and business development, Mr Pascal Jenni, draws a comparison between road and rail transport: “A truck goes from A to B, but going by train is a real hurdle race. ETCS has to become truly European; at the moment it’s TCS, not ETCS, it’s useless across the border, and it’s expensive. Railways are over-regulated compared with inland shipping and road. We need one language from the Netherlands and Belgium to Italy, and synchronisation of infrastructure and energy. Uncoordinated construction works are a huge capacity-burner. We need to empower corridor management, with one operational management, one safety management, more interoperability and a reduction in regulatory barriers.”
Mr Christian Stäubli, head of product management at BLS Cargo, says BLS Cargo uses RFC 2 as it offers a shorter route from Belgium to Switzerland, but he is unhappy about the monopoly situation with French National Railways (SNCF). “From RFC 2, we expect the PC70-400 loading gauge, simpler access through St Louis-Basle, high train path flexibility, and improvements with traction providers,” he says. Stäubli adds that there are no locomotives available which can operate a train from Belgium via France to Italy on RFC 2, unlike on RFC 1. Restrictive loading gauge is also a problem, as is the lack of flexibility and the risk of strikes.
This is where the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR) comes in. Throughput by its huge range of members has increased significantly in the last five years, says its technical director Mr Eric Feyen. He describes the role of UIRR for the RFCs: “We have advisory groups,” Feven says. “Our aims include encouraging coordination, which we certainly need a lot more of, as the Rastatt incident shows.”
There are several obstacles to the development of intermodal transport, Feven says. These are not only physical bottlenecks, but also divergent regulatory frameworks and enforcement regimes, the difficulty of establishing quality train paths and other bottlenecks caused by divergent railway rules and in transshipment terminals. Ten priorities have been defined to address these issues.
Other problem areas which need to be addressed include the absolute priority of passenger traffic over freight, coordination of track work, small-scale work taking far too long, inconsistent progress in standardisation, intermodal uncertainties, unclear goals, a lack of coordination between member states and a lack of communication between road/rail/regulation/logistics bodies. “Cross-border lines that have been closed because the EU or the UIC decided they were superfluous could be used as alternative routes, but rebuilding the missing kilometres is regarded as a national issue with no funding,” Feyen points out.
How long it will take to achieve these aims is an open question, but in any event it will undoubtedly take years. In the meantime, one can only hope that the rail industry will appreciate the urgency of welcoming innovation and cooperation in the interests of keeping rail freight corridors alive and well.