08 January 2018

Freight Rail Boss Attacks European Failures After Rastatt Tunnel Collapse  

Berkeley Worries Failure to Act Will Mirror the Decline of the Canals

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UK – EUROPE – Anyone familiar with the views of Tony Berkeley, Chairman of the UK Rail Freight Group (RFG) and a Board Member of both the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA) and of ALLRAIL (and dare we say Member of the House of Lords), will be unsurprised by his latest comments regarding the state of rail freight in Europe, particularly in the aftermath of the Rastatt Tunnel collapse which threw much of the system into chaos. Berkeley poses the question, ‘Do we want rail to survive and grow, or wither as the canals did 150 years ago?’ And in the light of past performance by the authorities, he may have a point.

We ourselves, along with a plethora of heavyweight bodies, have posed similar questions as to the future of rail freight, given the propensity of some governments to favour their own state run monopolies, illegally financing one arm of the operation via the transfer of funds from another. Berkeley asks whether DB Cargo ever complained to DB Netz, its own company’s infrastructure manager, about Rastatt? Berkeley postulates probably not, because DB Cargo appears to have been given more priority on the few diversion routes available than other operators. Communications were sadly lacking, especially between SNCF and DB. Such delays could bankrupt private companies; no doubt, he says, the incumbents will fudge it and hope to forget just what a disaster it was to the sector. He goes on to say:

”The length of journey of many rail freight services in Europe should give rail a competitive advantage on road, but the rail market share is very bad, except in Switzerland where road transport restrictions benefit rail. The performance and arrival times of many freight services is often in the 60 to 70% on time; this is much worse than road, even when the rail services are not disrupted by track closures as happened at Rastatt in Germany in August, where some 200 trains a day were disrupted for six weeks.

”This meant that customers’ cargoes did not arrive when expected. I do not yet know how many customers have abandoned rail for good, but who can blame them when, on this heaviest trafficked of all corridors, there were few suitable diversion routes available, where there were continuing stupid arguments about whether French or German language should be used at frontiers, where there were few drivers with the necessary route knowledge and where the infrastructure managers appeared less than fully concerned and willing even to cut the odd corner to keep the trains running?”

Berkeley points out that the state run monopolies are causing the problems, and he further points out that, given the wish of member states and the Commission to reduce air pollution and the road traffic congestion that causes so much of it, 2018 provides the opportunity to rebalance the road/rail funding and traffic volumes, only achievable however if the political will is there. He illustrates the disparity across the continent, both in passenger and freight services.

For example, on routes where there is competition in Italy, Austria and Czech Republic, average passenger fares have dropped between 25 and 41% and passenger demand risen between 80 and 100%. Compare this with France where there is virtually no competition and where demand dropped by 5% per year since 2011. In the UK, despite many criticisms, both passenger and freight train performance is generally better, with targets of 95% on time being achieved, and Berkeley believes this may be due to the system of penalties imposed by the regulatory body on train operators and infrastructure bodies if they cause delays to others, the system in place automatically incentivises all parties to perform at their best.

The solutions to the problems involved are relatively simple if the will to impose them exists. A common language, as with air travel, would avoid the petty squabbles and inoperability of services which occurred post Rastatt. A single European infrastructure manager operating the policies, timetables, performance etc. is essential but with subsidiaries in each member state that would be required to compete with each other on costs, delays and customer service, and enforced by a European rail regulator with teeth.

Split infrastructure management away from railway undertakings, whether freight or passenger, as envisaged by the EU but still ignored by many states. Free and open revelation of all relevant data including performance, timetables and customer services. Proper monitoring of the split up by an independent body with the European Agency for Rail, supported by the European Commission, abolishing national rules and actively promoting full interoperability.

The removal of the vested interests, and the introduction of a fair, but firm management on a European basis would benefit all member states with a rise in rail traffic and reduced road traffic congestion with its accompanying environmental benefits. Tony Berkeley concludes with a note of somewhat deserved cynicism:

”Sadly, there is little evidence that change is on its way – at the moment. Just more talking as a means of delay. Is it not time that the railways, and their managers and the member states resisting change, stopped behaving like spoilt spoon-fed children and grew up to the world of high tech business which expects cost effective performance with a ‘can-do’ approach incentivised by competition and customer service?”

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