WITH the expansion of highway networks and introduction of heavier lorries, wagonload rail has been under sustained pressure for decades. For Swiss rail freight operator SBB Cargo, however, it is a fixed part of their strategic plan and ripe for improvement.

SBBCargo GublerA new system for wagonload traffic, dubbed WLV 2017, is now in operation in Switzerland. It offers collection and delivery up to three times a day instead of just once, with a booking system for customers that provides fixed slots at fixed times - they can simply look at the timetable to find out what time and where trains are offered, then book. The aim is to bring wagonload services up-to-date so they are faster, more efficient and more punctual in order to meet the needs of modern logistics systems. And SBB Cargo is embracing the system following a major change in the Swiss timetable on December 11 2016, when the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel began full operations after 17 years of construction.

Under the new system, freight wagons are handled on a 24-hour rota in three shifts at the major shunting yards such as the main yard at Limmattal near Zürich, Lausanne and also Ticino, where there is a growing market. These phases are timed to avoid conflicts with peak passenger services, and mean that same-day delivery can be offered. It also means the load on locomotives can be optimised, leading to greater efficiency and a higher return on investment. And it means shift work for the train drivers, so fewer need to be employed. This is still a topic for SBB Cargo, which made a loss of SFr 22 million ($US 21.7m) in 2015, but is looking forward to a better result for 2016 thanks to cost-cutting measures.

“Rail is very important for Switzerland, and we are aiming to offer a modern service,” says SBB Cargo CEO Mr Nicolas Perrin. “We have a huge advantage over road, which is very traffic-dependent, as we can make plans according to a fixed schedule.”

SBB Cargo carries 205,000 tonnes of freight per day, 25% of all goods transported in Switzerland. This makes it the biggest single carrier in a market that is hotly contested by the rail and road sectors. “A 25% market share is extremely high,” Perrin says. “To increase this will be hard, but we certainly don’t want to lose any clients.”

At the same time, Perrin emphasises the importance of cooperation. “Partnership between road and rail for large quantities of freight is essential, and we’ve been working together with our customers for some time to develop this concept,” he says. There are 30 top customers among SBB Cargo’s list of around 1000 clients, including the road haulage company Planzer, and the Migros and Coop supermarket chains. There is also the Feldschlösschen brewery which has used combined transport throughout its 140-year history.

“It needs both sides to develop a system and make it work,” Perrin continues. “The cement manufacturer Holcim is one of our big customers, and their products naturally belong to rail not road. It’s up to us to work with them to find solutions.”

International wagonload traffic offers a certain amount of scope as well. “For example, the X-Rail alliance of six rail companies, which is slowly making progress,” he points out. “We’re thinking what we can do; the problem is the infrastructure in other countries. We already have intermodal customers and are talking with potential new ones, but it’s a huge change for companies that have never used intermodal services and it needs time. We have a new terminal in Ticino which is really good, so we’re well-placed. And it’s encouraging that we’re attracting more road haulage companies.”

Strong franc

One of the factors promoting the development of WLV 2017 was the economic situation in Switzerland, which is still battling the effects of a strong Swiss franc. “With the decline in heavy industry and the resultant loss of business, we decided to target a third sector, including services and consumer products, which meant we had to adapt to the higher speed of service and greater productivity demanded by the logistics sectors,” Perrin explains. “The real pioneer for this is Green Cargo in Sweden.”

Also important is the technical side. “The freight wagon is the most important link in the chain between the customer and the operator. Basically, it’s a dumb metal box with low engineering, and if we’re going to meet the needs of modern logistics it has to be quieter and faster with more automatic functions,” Perrin says.

He says the situation is changing with the development of asset intelligence. Included in the programme is the use of mobile devices, automatic operating in shunting yards, automatic brake testing, predictive maintenance, automatic coupling and wayside technology. SBB Cargo also introduced a project in November to fit all of its wagons with RFID tags over the next two years. “We’re working on all of these aspects, and we’re confident that it’ll bring a lot of benefit in the future.”

SBB Cargo is part of the Technical Innovation Circle for Rail Freight Transport (TIS), a multi-sector organisation set up to devise ways of applying existing innovations and standardising the rail freight sector for greater compatibility. To this end the Swiss operator is launching the “5L demonstrator” train in a four-year project. The first four wagons of the train are being equipped with automatic coupling systems, new bogies, measures for noise reduction, braking systems, wheelsets and telematics applications, trials are due to start this spring.

SBB Cargo’s plans for dragging its wagonload sector into the 21st century are enviable, but whether other countries are likely to follow suit is a moot point, according to Perrin.

France and Italy have put wagonload traffic on the backburner, and in any case, it is understood that any route under 1000km is not economic. It is also a question of topography: Switzerland is a small, mountainous country with a well-developed, heavily-used railway system, and the solutions it develops are not necessarily applicable in larger countries with less challenging geography. But Perrin is reasonably sanguine:

“With our intelligent freight wagons, we hope that other railway companies will jump on the bandwagon,” he says. “After all, digitalisation offers a huge chance of boosting both customer communications and automated operating systems, and our sector would be well-advised to take it up.”