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Freight in Europe : are the right questions asked?

(version en français)

David Briginshaw, senior columnist for the International Railway Journal, signs a pessimistic editorial in the August issue. He’s not wrong. Entitled « Time is not on the side of Europeans freight operators« , this column is a reporting of the June Conference in Genoa. What did we learn at this high mass ?

Briginshaw writes from the outset that the event, whose content was from high level, was not up to expectations. « Rail has a 33% market share in the United States, 30% in India and 80% in Russia (…) while rail’s share of the European freight market is just 11-12% ». These are the figures recalled by Renato Mazzoncini, President of UIC. Then come as usual the traditional causes that we probably talk about for thirty years without having found tangible solutions. A Swiss speaker at the conference, director of a logistics firm, does not hesitate to say that the road sector has done in five years what rail has done in more than twenty years. A real problems…

The real question is: why the road and the air sector are progressing so heavily and not the rail? Answering this question requires a lot of sincerity and good faith. Is this really what we find in this kind of big conference? We can expect very evasive or consensual answers which not bringing anything new to the debate. We then find as an escape the big dream of the digital train, in order to satisfy everyone. However, this does not help a  progress more faster of the railway sector. Why ?

Because we deliberately to bypass what is bothering us. The bothered things are not lacking, in the big railway sector. Despite the timid coming of competitive entreprises, most countries still live with a railway incumbent which have workers with special labor laws. The highly regulated railway sector makes this sector very labour intensive. Endless discussions must be take in place to change a few thing. That was clearly seen in France last spring. In these conditions, we do not see how digital could change a few things, just to eliminates even more jobs and creates more strikes. This is why some directors in public sectors need to be cautious about what they are saying. They know that changes in the rail sector are very political. No blockchain can solve this kind of problem.

Another challenge is the rail network. Many public companies consider that they own the network, and that they have priority over everything. But even separate entities like Network Rail are totally tied to political desiderata. In Great Britain, electrification projects and tracks improvements have been postponed by the central government. How can we then decently asked carriers to improve their services? No blockchain can solve this kind of problem. It’s just a matter of human will …

ETCS was supposed to promise us a better railway world, with more trains on the tracks. It’s a fail. Drivers fear for their safety with trains too close to each other, and the unions make it clear. Some networks have made it clear, as in Germany, that they have a security system that works as well as ETCS. They have no reason to change systems completely. In addition, it appeared that the competitive rail market is mainly composed of freight trains that run 300 to 800km, and often much less (local freight). As one operator in another seminar put it: « I don’t need a locomotive that goes from Stockholm to Palermo ». So there is always, somewhere, a change of locomotive and drivers. Some operators do not want their locomotive to leave too far from their base, because at 1000 km, there is no one to repair or repatriate. There exist not yet the Rail Europ Assistance… Ah, maybe here a blockchain can solve this kind of problem…

Another interesting point is traffic management. As soon as an incident occurs, the infrastructure managers stop the trains! Sometimes it takes a long time to be aware of the incident and then restart the traffic, again with unfavorable priorities for freight trains. It is impossible to divert traffic even if an other route is available. We know that with the Rastatt incident: few trains were diverted via Schaffhausen and Stuttgart. This lack of responsiveness is due to the very heavy procedures of the railway network. And few people have the courage to change the procedures. In addition, drivers are approved for this or that route, and can not ride on others. Locomotives have the same problem: they must be approved otherwise they are prohibited. The Bombardier TRAXX or Siemens Vectron stucked in Basel during the Rastatt incident could not drive under the 25kV in Alsace, nor ride under the French KVB system. It’s a fault of the operators, not the infrastructure managers. Rail experts know that certification of rolling stock for multiple networks is time consuming and expensive. No blockchain could change anything at this level…

This is extremely damaging for the railway sector. As you know, a truck driver can use any road. Same for an air pilot. Obviously, the road and air sectors work in an open environment.

The last point concerns the freight itself. Logistics is clearly not a railway worker’s job. It is a very competitive, very reactive sector, where the staff turnover is very important. It is an industry exactly on the opposite of the railroad, with giant warehouses increasingly automated. A company in Antwerp told me that in less than half a day it could get 10 trucks to quickly take 10 containers to Germany or Basel. With the train, it was necessary to foresee this 2 to 3 weeks in advance … We live in the era of Amazon where the customers ask to be delivered sometimes during the day. What can the train do in such an environment? No blockchain can achieve this …

Like many people, I would like to be much more positive. But for now, I do not see many things that would reverse my opinion. But time passes. Neither the road nor the air sector will slow their progress while the train takes his time…

Freight heading east through Warwick station (photo by Robin Stott via license geograph.org.uk)

 

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