D-Takt: the great challenge of the clockface timetable 2/2

05/09/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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Continued from our first part

A train every half hour from city to city and from village to village. Convenient transfers without long waiting times, even in the countryside. Riding a train anywhere in the country would be as easy as riding the S-Bahn in the cities today. It is the Deutschlandtakt, the german’s clockface timetable (also called D-Takt). This second part will detail the impact of the clockface timetable service on journey times between the major German cities and the place reserved for new entrants.

D-Takt have alredy begin to be implementate. The first step was to introduce half-hourly long-distance services between Hamburg and Berlin for the timetable change in December 2020. Further projects will be implemented gradually in the following years.

The current draft 2030 D-Takt shows half-hourly long-distance services on many routes. The combination with infrastructure works will enable some significant journey time reduction, even with change of train. For example:

  • 2h12 on Lübeck-Berlin instead 2h40;
  • 3h32 on Düsseldorf-Berlin instead 4h13;
  • 4h08 on Nürnberg-Görlitz instead 5h25;
  • 4h34 on Stuttgart-Berlin instead 5h38.

There are therefore very significant journey time gains on some routes compared to the current situation.

The necessary works are now undertaken with a major difference in approach:

  • In the past, we built the rail infrastructure first and then drew up a network timetable on his parameter;
  • Today, we first analyse the demand and then design and prioritise rail expansion projects based on bottlenecks and a modern interval timetable with better, more efficient and faster connections.

However, this logical approach comes up against a major question: based on which company do we « analyse the demand »? The impression remains that this is aimed at a single operator who would capture all the demand on his own. This raises questions about the place the government has reserved for other long-distance operators in Germany. In May 2019, Fabian Stenger, the head of Flixbus Germany, was concerned that the D-takt project: ‘You have to be careful that the Deutschlandtakt doesn’t turn into a Deutsche Bahn Takt. That would be a disaster for passengers.’

However, Flixtrain’s arguments are likely to be very badly received: in 2020, the Munich startup had to stop its traffic twice because of « customers at home ». The reliability of the Flixmobility concept has therefore taken a serious hit on face, even if at the same time DB can be criticised for running ICEs with taxpayers’ money with less than 10% of passengers on board. There are several things to say about this.

Flixtrain behaves differently than other private operators in Europe. Both WESTbahn, RegioJet, MTR Nordic or NTV-Italo have continued to operate a service, albeit very reduced, during the pandemic. Flixtrain is presenting itself as a predator that can save the climate, a message that is unlikely to get through in political circles. A more polished message is more likely for an operator to survive. The proof is in Austria, for example, where the state ‘handed out’ slots and subsidies three times during the pandemic, both at ÖBB and WESTbahn. In Vienna, nobody wanted to kill the small competitor. It is not stipulated that the introduction of a timetable for a dominant operator prevents alternative operators from obtaining additional train paths. For example, in Italy, although not perfectly timetabled clockface, the Milan-Rome route saw the number of daily trains increase from 39 in 2009 to 62 services in 2016, more than doubling, thanks to the contribution of competitor NTV-Italo.

However, it is true that a problem can arise when, in order to coordinate Intercity with regional traffic, dozens of large stations are suddenly flooded by several trains within a period of 10 to 15 minutes. These trains then occupy the tracks and do not allow any other traffic. This detail has kept the attention of rail freight, which is now wondering how it can get through without being constantly stopped by such a flow of trains. If this flow of trains is repeated every thirty minutes, as is planned in the D-Takt, there will be little space left between flows for freight trains to pass. These risks causing rail market failures and this situation does not respond to the modal shift policy.

According the Pro-Rail Alliance, rail freight transport is a fundamental component and part of the Deutschlandtakt. The importance is to involve the rail freight companies in the process of the Deutschlandtakt at an early stage. Two aspects in particular are important for growing freight transport by rail:

  • Better planning where the Deutschlandtakt will systematize the slots on the rails to a greater extent. Less piecemeal, more planning. Freight traffic should also benefit from this systematization. Overall, the plan can also increase the utilization of rail capacity.
  • Free train paths: for freight railways, forwarders and transport companies, flexibility is a high priority. That is why additional capacities and train path corridors were included in the Deutschlandtakt from the outset (« catalogue train paths »).

It is therefore a question of providing sufficient freight paths fixed annually, whether or not they are used. They should be able to be paid per unit because a freight train can run one day and not the next. This is flexibility. But at this point, there is no indication that it will turn out the way Allianz Pro Schiene wants.

To talk about the problem raised by new entrants in Germany, a solution could come from a rather unexpected country: Spain. With a delay due to the pandemic, this country is beginning to liberalise its long-distance services this year. Spain provides a very controlled liberalisation. The two new operators competing with Renfe have only been granted « lots of train paths »: 15 round trips for SNCF and 45 for ILSA/Trenitalia (which will not arrive until 2022). Renfe, « which Madrid did not want to kill », has won the jackpot and will operate both its traditional AVEs and low-cost AVEs under the name Avlo. Although we are not talking about a clockface timetable, it is clear that the distribution of train paths on a busy route like Madrid-Barcelona has allowed every competitor to find their way around. This Spanish system of « controlled market opening » could perhaps inspire Germany, provided that the infrastructure manager is completely independent. However, while this is the case in Spain with Adif, it is not the case in Germany where DB Netz is part of the same holding company as Deutsche Bahn.

The concrete application of the Spanish policy to D-Takt could then result in the following pattern:

Of the 6 round trips possible during the day between Hamburg and Stuttgart (6h journey) we note:

  • that three round trips are operated by DB;
  • that two round trips are operated by a competitor X;
  • only one round trip is operated by a third competitor Y;
  • DB therefore has a 50% market share and the two competitors 33% and 17% respectively.

This is a deliberately simplified theoretical diagram for the demonstration. It remains of course to fill the gaps in Hamburg (departures 11:28, 12:28, 13:28 …) as well as in Stuttgart (departures 9:15, 10:15, 11:15 …) according to the same principle. If infrastructure works would later make it possible to reduce the journey time to 5.30 or even 5 hours, the rail paths would therefore be redistributed.

This system can only be valid by a complete management of the timetable graph by the infrastructure manager, the operators coming to « fish » the best train paths at their convenience. The price would vary depending on peak hours. This is roughly the principle applied to the aviation with the famous slots provided by airports. Through its infrastructure manager, the State here becomes a strategist of its own rail policy to achieve some of its climate objectives. Indeed, it may require the installation of a train every 30 minutes on a given section if it still finds that too many people are taking the car or the plane. It may require more taxed paths than others, for example those in the morning, to mitigate traffic peaks. To give a framework without sinking into Soviet interventionism…

It also remains that the D-Takt plan cannot be something to freeze for eternity. This will not be the case because infrastructure works will have to be spread over 10 years. Each improvement in the journey time will bring about a redistribution of the paths as presented above. The State strategist will also be confronted with the reality of the public finances available over the years … and the elections. A project approved today could be challenged tomorrow by a new ruling coalition. The inclusion of competitors within the D-Takt system also has its opponents, who still consider the railroad as a single object. It will also be necessary to provide, in the morning and in the evening, room for the night trains which are called upon to multiply within the framework of the TEE 2.0 plan. These trains are not part of D-Takt because it is a complementary traffic, but they should not be forgotten by the infrastructure manager, whatever the operator.

Finally, we can say that the clockface timetable is a crucial element to make access to the train easier, but that it is only part of the work to regain market share. It is also necessary to connect the ticketing between national and regional operators and giving life-breath to regional policies which want rail services designed locally for their constituents. All this is possible as soon as a State concretizes in the law clear directives for each actor, while not forgetting that the railway world must be plural if we want to achieve the climate objectives.

Back to our first part

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