Monday, October 2, 2017

Collapsed Rastatt Tunnel Reopens to Rail Freight after Seven Weeks of Chaos

Industry Bodies Call for Major Changes in European Infrastructure Management
Shipping News Feature
EUROPE – After seven weeks of chaos on the European rail freight network caused by the collapse of a new rail tunnel at Rastatt as it was being excavated, this morning the critical line was reopened. The closure has had a terrible effect on rail freight across the Continent as the line is the key rail freight route between the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Germany, Switzerland and Italy. So serious was the back log that Rotterdam's Rail Service Centre had to severely restrict freight containers and semi-trailers from using their holding facilities as they were at capacity.

The unprecedented back log is now being cleared as the line returns to normal, but the repercussions will echo loud and long. Now a coalition of 29 rail freight organisations has sent an open letter to the EU Commissioner, Transport Ministries, the Rail Freight Corridors and ERA entitled ‘Rastatt: let’s learn the lessons’, highlighting issues, the damage caused by the closure and calling for such an event to never be repeated. This latest correspondence echoes the concerns of the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA) expressed in a similar missive last month. The latest letter states:

“The closure of a small stretch of railway line must never again lead to the chaos and wide-reaching economic damage of Rastatt. The disaster has directly exposed rail as the weak link within the integrated logistics chain. Customer confidence in rail transport has also been damaged, jeopardising modal shift in the coming months and beyond. This must be rapidly restored if rail is to continue playing a key role in Europe’s sustainable transport system.

“The scale of the disruption, both in terms of duration and its impact on international services; the absence of robust international crisis management tools; the lack of viable, alternative routes, particularly on neighbouring networks, with both national obstacles and language requirements for train drivers preventing the unrestricted use of such routes, are all elements that contributed to the extensive damage and that must now be urgently addressed.

“We as rail freight customers seek your support and leadership to ensure that rail is left in a stronger position, not a weaker one, from this incident. Lessons must be drawn, recommendations must be made and actions must be taken in order to address the challenges facing the rail sector, laid bare by Rastatt. Rastatt definitely shows the urgent need for effective international coordination of rail freight services by national ministries and infrastructure managers, with the strong support of the European Commission.”

The associations call for a range of improvements to be made to the management of European rail lines so as to insure against such a problem arising again. For each main line, there must be pre-defined alternatives with capacity considered: a line with 200 freight trains a day needs to offer stand-by routes of at least 75% of the normal volume.

There also needs to be a structure in place for much-needed day-to-day coordination between the diverse collection of national infrastructure managers, railway undertakings, terminals, private sidings, operators and customers in case of an emergency. In the event of a disruption, the immediate designation of a cross-border emergency coordination team is required.

In addition, the interoperability of the European rail network must be strengthened. National requirements for language competencies was one of the biggest barriers to using available spare capacity during Rastatt; the driver language issue must be addressed as a priority and a single operational language adopted for the European rail system

International coordination of infrastructure works also need to be handled better. Line closures or restrictions, whether planned or unplanned, must be managed in such a way that they ensure viable solutions for existing traffic and limit the negative impact on the quality of service offered to the end customer. This is still not the case today.

The Rastatt disruption also clearly shows the need for strong operational corridor management. Robust operations centres, one per corridor, should be established to effectively manage long distance rail freight traffic on different networks. There should also be incentives to minimise the impact of disruptions on rail services.

The Associations also called for the establishment of a rail platform to be chaired by the European Commission that will facilitate long-term coordination with the rail transport sector and the national transport Ministries.

The letter also calls for immediate financial relief for the sector, pointing out that almost two months of service disruption on Europe’s main North-South artery has had an enormous economic impact on rail freight logistics. The letter points out that:

“Costs for the sector have simply increased, with no change in their fixed costs, whilst no compensation has so far been received, with the exception of Switzerland’s announcement to partly compensate. This situation increases the vulnerability of the sector, particularly for the smaller companies unable to absorb the costs.

“The affected railway undertakings and the combined transport sector players, including its users, should be offered immediate financial relief. To accelerate the process of paying compensation, the German Authorities should clarify as quickly as possible the liability issue surrounding the Rastatt disaster.”