Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Talks on European Freight and Passenger Rail Timetable Commence

There's a Slow Train Coming
Shipping News Feature
EUROPE – As the UK prepares to leave the EU one of the areas which traditionally has shown just how poorly the cooperative organisation can work looks as if it might finally have begun to get its act together. Freight and passenger carriage by rail has stubbornly resisted any changes to increase efficiency with companies, and indeed governments, reluctant to give access to tracks and infrastructure unless it should be in their own self-interest.

Now at least, prompted by the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), talks are to begin in December to ‘remedy the unsatisfactory situation where international train operations are difficult to coordinate due to a lack of harmonised timetabling procedures between European countries’ according to RailNetEurope (RNE) and Forum Train Europe (FTE), the bodies undertaking preparation of the plan.

RNE has 34 member rail infrastructure companies located in 25 European countries plus 9 railfreight corridors as associate members whilst the FTE has 91 carriers from both freight and passenger sectors located in 31 countries signed up. Don’t however get too excited yet. A proper consultation on the balance between capacity and demand is likely to take a considerable time given the multitude of factors, and the stakeholders, involved. Between them they are tasked with extracting a huge amount of information to analyse what is in place and what are future requirements.

The real problems arise however in that, whatever is arrived at, it is likely to be a ‘best guess’ scenario. Whilst the respective partners in the venture might be able to persuade their members that it is very much in each other’s interests to bring the vision of a regularised rail timetable to fruition, there is an enormous fly in the ointment – that of known capacity.

The two groups agree that, although there may be regular capacity patterns for the three rail freight corridors involved in the plan, the Scandinavian Mediterranean Corridor (Munich-Verona), Atlantic Corridor (Mannheim-Miranda de Ebro) and North Sea – Mediterranean Corridor (Rotterdam-Antwerp), there is no easy way to calculate any surge in capacity. Currently timetables are usually based on information lodged 8 months in advance according to RNE. This results companies scrabbling for any extra capacity when there is an unplanned rise in demand.

One only has to look at the situation following the recent Rastatt rail tunnel collapse to see how the system can be plunged into chaos by an unexpected event. RNE and FTE believe they can try to get around unforeseen surges in capacity using a system they call a ‘rolling plan request’ saying in a statement:

“The rolling planning is based on safeguarded capacity, which is dedicated to later requests and which is assigned to this purpose in the capacity model. This should enable railway undertakings to request paths at any time and still get high quality paths. Quick response times and multi-annual request validity should provide the flexibility necessary in order to react to the volatile market, while at the same time still providing stability for upcoming timetable periods.”

So shippers, both regular and irregular, will hope that after all the talking is done, plans are that the timetables are rolled out, in harness with the old system, before 2019 when phase 2 will iron out the bugs of the procedure to offer a brand new timetable in 2020. It seems indeed there is indeed a slow train coming (apologies to Bob Dylan).