DESPITE projections for rapid growth in Europe over the next 15 years, doubts still surround railfreight's capability to reap these potentially lucrative rewards following the expected economic turnaround. A lack of reliability and flexibility, high costs and long loading times, which prompted the shift from rail to road transport in the mid 20th century, is again threatening to undermine railfreight's competitiveness despite high oil prices and rail's superior capacity and environmental credentials.

Since the early 1990s, the European Union (EU) has stepped up efforts to promote greater interoperability on its inland railfreight network because of growing competition from other economic regions. However, these measures - ranging from the adoption of technical operability standards, market liberalisation through the first and second railway packages, and the Trans European Transport Network (TEN-T) - have been largely criticised for not going far enough. And with the modal split between road and rail remaining stagnant, despite huge growth in overall freight volumes, this disapproval appears justified.

Ferrmed, which along with New Opera is one of two initiatives funded by the European Commission (EC) intended to identify and recommend improvements to network infrastructure and operability standards, shares this view.

Formed in Brussels in 2004, Ferrmed is now supported by 143 members, including key business institutions and private companies from all over Europe and North Africa. In its global study published in October 2009, it says that the policies adopted by the EC since 2001, including the 30 TEN-T priority projects, as well as investments by member states, are only freezing the rate at which transport is shifting from rail to road. The report consequently recommends a sweeping rethink of future investment in European freight infrastructure, the implications of which were discussed by a variety of panellists during the organisation's third conference in Barcelona on May 27.
At the heart of the recommendations is the establishment of the Ferrmed great axis railfreight network. Stretching 3500km across western Europe from Scandinavia to northern Africa, the route intertwines the three north - south and three east - west trans-European axes and their feeder lines in 13 countries linking the major ports on the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts with the Mediterranean.

However, in order for this axis to operate successfully, Ferrmed argues that the efficiency of European freight transport must be improved. Greater interoperability across borders is critical to the axis' success including improving "last mile" connections between rail, air, and sea, as well as the implementation of its 17 standards across the continent. These include adopting a universal track and loading gauge, electrification at 25kV ac, dedicated 24-hour freight routes that operate alongside passenger lines, and implementation of ERTMS Level 2. If realised, these changes are projected to increase line speeds as well as capacity by an estimated 50% from 266 billion tonne-km in 2005 to 524 billion in 2025.

Inevitably such sweeping changes will involve substantial costs - €177 billion by 2025 is the estimate given in the report for full Ferrmed implementation, with 43.5% of funding to come from the EU states, 28% from the EC, 24% from PPPs and 8% from investment banks. While this is a gigantic outlay, particularly given European governments' current budget crises, if the full Ferrmed standards are adopted they are projected to generate savings in operating costs of €228 billion, €285 billion in travel and transport time and €15 billion on accidents and emissions from 2016 to 2045, which equates overall to a profit margin of 11.1%.

Mr Jordi Prat, Barcelona delegate of the Spanish Ministry of Development, told the conference that while the costs to implement the programme may on the face of it seem extremely high, the benefits are clear for all to see.

"We have a broad plan for an interoperable rail network and now the countries included have to see the benefit of this," Prat said. "We have to show that when spread over a number of years and across the 13 European countries the investment is far less daunting than it might seem."

Ferrmed members who attended the conference in Barcelona were encouraged by growing signs that the report's recommendations are at the forefront of the EC's plans to develop Europe's freight network over the next few years.

In particular, Mr Jean-Eric Paquet, the EC's director general for mobility and transport, gave the clearest indication yet that the TEN-T review, which is set to proceed over the next few months following last month's conference in Zaragoza, Spain, will include the Ferrmed recommendations in its list of priority projects for improving European freight transport. The Zaragoza conference resulted in agreements for three of the 30 TEN-T projects that will promote greater interoperability. These include improving high-speed links between Spain and the rest of Europe, an east-west corridor from Lyon to the Ukrainian border and improvements to lines from the Baltic region and Scandinavia to western Europe.

"Such an integrated transport system should be based on an approach that brings together all modes of transport and a connection between these modes of transport," Paquet says. "Here again this is very much a concept at the forefront of the work of Ferrmed. You can be certain that the EC will make good use of the outcome of the Ferrmed project and that we will be able to develop a TEN-T policy that genuinely serves as the basis for the future of the European transport system."

One of the most revolutionary changes that the Ferrmed project might bring is the introduction of longer freight trains - specifically 1500m-long trains capable of transporting 3000 - 5000 tonnes, compared with a current maximum train length in Europe of around 750m. Providing insights from forthcoming Ferrmed studies on freight wagon concepts, representatives from Vossloh, Alstom and Faiveley agreed that 1500m-long trains will improve efficiency, pointing out that it is possible to adapt existing freight locomotives to haul longer trains.

The changes required include adopting a starting tractive effort of between 600 - 800kN, using at least 12 motorised axles and utilising more than one locomotive to reach the 8-10MW output required to achieve speeds of 100km/h+. Air braking systems that are synchronised using radio technology could also be implemented along with automatic couplers that are capable of accommodating higher forces as well as improving safety, essential if longer trains are introduced.

Dr Gerhard Troche, from the rail group of the Royal Institute of Stockholm and Mr Armando Carrillo, from Berlin's Institute of Technology, discussed altering freight wagon layouts, a further area of Ferrmed research. They pointed out that wagons currently contribute 15-25% of operators' costs but the introduction of longer wagons - from a current standard length of 19m to 25m - could significantly reduce these costs and increase capacity by 33%. Replacing pocket wagons with intermodal low-floor flat wagons that are compatible with 100% of Europe's lorry fleet compared with only 5% at present, could potentially increase the attractiveness of road on rail solutions, while meeting Ferrmed's proposed loading gauge standards.

Inevitably, with the conference being hosted in Barcelona, many of the discussions focused on Spain. The difference in track gauge with continental Europe remains a huge stumbling block and consequently Ferrmed considers a universal adoption of 1435mm as one of the first priorities for the axis project. Other developments in Spain include the addition of a high-speed line from Tarragona to Almeria, and consistent with other proposed investments across Europe, introducing double-track sections and bypasses around large cities.

Mr Manel Villalante, director general of transport for the government of Catalonia, expressed his view that the recommended investments in improved infrastructure to connect with the rest of Europe are extremely important to the economic future of the Iberian Peninsula.

However, he told delegates that a past reluctance to recognise the need to change must be overcome in Spain and across Europe if the potential of the Ferrmed project is to be realised.

"For years we have used the excuse of the track gauge as a reason not to invest," Villalante says. "We have seen changes in the few years... but the problems in Spain are very serious in both our management and philosophy. We need to look at working closer with the current administration because we cannot achieve this is in the Catalonia government alone. This is a network that goes beyond our part of the Iberian Peninsula."

Certainly convincing governments stricken by budget constraints to invest heavily in their freight infrastructure, which traditionally takes a backseat in Europe behind passenger-oriented projects, is the biggest challenge facing the Ferrmed project during the next few years.

With economic uncertainty sweeping across Europe, governments might be forgiven for dismissing such hefty investments. However, Mr Joan Amoros, secretary general of Ferrmed, says that expected levels of profitability make the Ferrmed project not just a sensible, but necessary investment. If this doesn't happen, he says that European governments and companies may miss a golden opportunity that might not come around again.

"We have to push together to achieve this target," he says. "The most important thing in Europe is to invest where it is profitable. We have seen everywhere, Spain included, lots of investments that have not proved profitable. Our intention is to focus on the core networks that are."