Intermodal: the increasing importance of P400

04/25/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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(Version en français)

Intermodal trains made up half of the EU rail freight traffic in 2019. This means that special attention must be paid to this mode of transport, which combines rail for the main part of the journey and truck for the pre- and post-carriage terminal trips. Rather than spreading money around the European Union, the focus was taking on a dedicated network where major investments are made in capacity, modernisation and signalling. This Trans-European Network for Transport (TEN-T) has been formalised through 9 corridors across Europe. The TEN-T Regulation is the legal instrument in which the EU Member States agree the technical parameters of the railway network and receive funds from the EU.

Among the important technical parameters, the famous P400 loading gauge is a key demand of intermodal operators. The P400 reference is the used standard of measurement for semi-trailers loaded on a pocket wagon. This nomenclature indicates that the maximum height at which a semi-trailer can be transported by rail is limited to 4 metres. This limit is set from the base of the wagon to the top of the semi-trailer, with the suspension being airless in order to comply with that height.

The origin of P400 loading gauge

The 4m height is a request from the road industry to make maximum use of the official European road and motorway dimensions, which set the height of trucks at 4m. The Megatrailer, for example, was a type of trailer developed in the 1990s by Ewals Cargo Care in cooperation and consultation with the European automotive industry. The aim was to develop a trailer that could carry 100 cubic metres of cargo. That represent an increase of approximately 25% compared to the conventional trailers of the time. These semi-trailers can load 33 europallets with a free height of 2.70m.

While this height may correspond to some demand, it is not the case for all transports, as shown in the picture below. Many pallets rarely need the full height available, due to the weight of the bags and the strength of the packaging. It is therefore common to have trucks that carry between 10 and 30% free space, sometimes much more! One might wonder why it was necessary for all trucks to be 4m high. Unfortunately, these dimensions have become sales and promotion arguments: the more cubic metres, the more ecological the transport. As is often the case, the railways have no choice but to adapt if they want to take market share in intermodal transport. A very heavy adaptation…

(photo Ewals Cargo Care via wikipedia)

However, in some countries, this Megatrailer’s gauge requires major work to upgrade the track for passages under bridges and in tunnels. This shows that a line belongs to the TEN-T network is of vital importance, because Europe can help. The P400 loading gauge is not possible in some countries, such as Great Britain, because of its rail network, which has a historically more restrictive gauge. This country, which is also oriented towards short sea shipping, prefers to use swap bodies, which is a unit like the container but adapted to the wider dimensions of road transport.

The P400 gauge requires numerous, sometimes costly, adaptations. This is where the interest lies in including a national railway line in a European corridor TEN-T, because Europe can intervene according to certain mechanisms. However, apart from the fact that there are choices to be made, there are many lines linking, for example, industrial or port areas that are outside the TEN-T, and do not benefit from European funds. Therefore organizations such as the UIRR or RNE are asking for the P400 gauge to be considered from end to end, not just on the main lines of a country.

Hupac, one of the largest operators in Europe, presented some figures of Hupac’s P400 network and its expansion in Switzerland and Central and Northern Europe, which is its current focus. Switzerland have today 2 corridors – Lötschberg/Simplon and Gothard/Ceneri -, with their all suitable tunnels which allow a P400 loading gauge. According to Hupac, this could lead to a shift of over 80% of road traffic to rail. Similarly, the Ceneri base tunnel’s opening can impact the modal shift in the corridor between Rotterdam and Genoa.

Swiss tunnels for P400 (photo Kecko via license flickr)

Arcese and TX Logistik, for example, have launched a new intermodal freight service between the Interporto of Bologna (Italy) and the TKN north terminal in Cologne (Germany). The service is open for P400 semi-trailers, thanks to the Swiss corridors and the opening of the new Ceneri Base Tunnel last year. Italian ports and logistics centers are the first to benefit from these improvements, especially as the P400 gauge is now available on certain Italian routes, for example toward Bari, in the south of the country, allowing connections to Greece and Turkey.

In the 1996 Treaty of Lugano, Switzerland and Germany agreed to modernize their railways. The Swiss have kept their word with 2 corridors and the Netherlands havealso a dedicated freight line from Rotterdam to the german’s border. However, it seems that German railway network updates are a long time coming. Seen from the Netherlands and Switzerland, the potential of the Rotterdam-Genoa route cannot be fully utilized as long as the Germans do not follow suit. According to information from Deutsche Bahn, the final stage of the Rheintalbahn would be ready only in 2035. Almost 40 years after the Treaty of Lugano. Fortunately, the P400 loading gauge is already available.

(photo press Hupac)

France is strongly promoting a more expensive hybrid system of rail highways designed by the national industry, the Lohr-Industrie system, which requires very special terminals where trailers are not craned but loaded sideways. Many players in combined transport, such as Hupac or LKW Walter, do not wish to use only this system and want to keep the traditional technique of the pocket wagon and craneable semi-trailers, which is considered cheaper and easier to implement. The P400 traffic is subject to an ‘Autorisation de Transport Exceptionnel’ (ATE), which means that traffic cannot be guaranteed over time, which is detrimental to the planning and development of intermodal transport. For example, ECR was able to run P400 trains between the Spanish border and Saarbrucken at the cost of a heavy management of ATE requests for each train, i.e. about 1000 requests per year on the Mediterranean corridor alone. CFL Cargo also has to apply for ATEs between Bettembourg and Lyon Port Édouard Herriot. They are only valid for 6 months. That said, awareness in France is coming and things are changing.

Some operators want to keep the traditional technique of the pocket wagon and craneable semi-trailers (photo Leci trailers)

This demand for P400 loading gauge also coincides with a demand for longer trains, 750m or even 1000m, which would pose some problems with sidings and some stations, not designed for such lengths. The aim is to have intermodal trains of 2,000 tonnes and to increase the modal shift with Megatrailers. All this shows once again the amazing importance of the quality of the railway infrastructure. It costs a lot of money, but once adapted, a railway line is compliant for the next 30 years at least. To get a real idea of the costs, you must divide the entire work cost of the work by 30. This gives a different perspective…

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