THE business model of the railway industry is going through a revolution, and freight arguably epitomises the opportunities and the risks associated with such a transformation.

The opportunities are great. In a context of global warming, railways can positively contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, because of their advantageous energy efficiency compared with that of trucks. Railways can help to decongest roads, not only further helping the planet but also freeing up roads for the transport of people and local deliveries of goods. Railfreight should also profit from its ability to carry heavy loads efficiently: this is the the concept behind so-called railway highways, a prominent example being LorryRail, a piggyback service linking Luxembourg to Perpignan, the most southerly city in France, close to the Spanish border.

However, the current service performance of railfreight operators is poor globally. It is still extremely difficult for customers to arrange door-to-door transport using rail; transit times are too long, especially where a border crossing is required, and prices are still too high. True intermodality, using the strengths of rail and road to complement each other, remains elusive, although it can be seen working in some countries such as Switzerland.

Still, the sector is moving: we all recognise the amazing work achieved on establishing a legal framework for railfreight in Europe. The European Commission has pushed ahead with essential reforms for rail deregulation. Open access, the establishment of regulatory bodies, and harmonised licensing, have allowed new operators to emerge and flourish. Interoperability is progressing too, thanks to the Technical Specifications for Interoperability.

At the Community of European Railways (CER) Eurailfreight conference in Brussels on January 20, there was a strong emphasis on the need for better management and utilisation of European freight corridors. The objective is always the same: trains must run smoothly, from one terminal to another, where trucks can then pick-up goods and deliver them to the customer.

Train path allocation and traction performance are cornerstones of successful railfreight operation. Technically, new legislation supposes a well maintained network with interoperable rolling stock and signalling, so that freight can cross Europe easily while maintaining a consistent level of operating safety.

However, there is a flip side to introducing new legislation: the countless pages of new regulations and procedures are difficult to understand and interpret, sometimes showing contradictions, and in many cases, not easily applicable in the real world. Today experts scramble to review the wording of new legislation and translate it into something workable. But the process needs to move more quickly.

In the world of bogies and wheelsets, freight should be the place where interoperability and standardisation meet, but this is still far from the reality. Wheels and wheelsets designed to run hundreds of thousands of kilometers across borders in Europe still differ between countries for minor features. The benefits of standardisation are however clear: less complexity means straightforward spare parts management, lower inventories and more efficient operation and maintenance throughout Europe. It would offer higher rolling stock availability, and later on, much-improved service performance for freight.

Unless significant investments are poured into infrastructure, it also implies that freight and passenger trains will continue to share tracks on most of the network. The current political priority given to passenger traffic leaves little capacity for freight, except at night. Squealing wheels and brakes and low-frequency vibration are rarely tolerated in the middle of the night in built-up areas, and the Europe Commission has reacted with a directive on noise. GHH-Valdunes has responded by developing wheelset technology that helps to drastically reduce noise levels.

During Eurailfreight, it was mentioned that no correlation has yet be seen between high energy costs and modal shifts between rail and road. The impact of high oil prices on the final cost of a product is still not significant enough to push logistics companies to switch from road to combined rail and road distribution. Infrastructure and services seem to weigh in more decisively, which means that railfreight must be simpler to operate and more efficient to realise its strong growth potential. At a time of unfolding economic crisis, the need for the railfreight industry to tackle these issues looks increasingly acute. IRJ

Jean-Pierre Auger, is Executive Vice-President of wheel manufacturer GHH-Valdunes, in charge of Development and OE sales. He is also Vice-President of the French Railway Industry Association (FIF) in charge of the Equipment Suppliers Group, and President of the European Railway Wheels Association (ERWA), a working group of Unife.