Rail freight corridors: what has been achieved so far?

05/24/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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For almost 30 years, the European Commission has launched various initiatives to boost rail freight transport, which has been lagging behind forever. These include the establishment of European corridors where investment and digitalisation are concentrated . What lessons can be learned so far?

The TEN-T programme consists of hundreds of projects – defined as studies or works – whose ultimate purpose is to ensure the cohesion, interconnection and interoperability of the trans-European transport network, as well as access to it. TEN-T projects, which are located in every EU Member State, include all modes of transport.

30 Priority Projects (or axes) have been identified on the basis of proposals from the Member States and are included in the Union guidelines for the development of the TEN-T as projects of European interest. These projects were chosen both according to their European added-value and their contribution to the sustainable development of transport.

Of these 30 key projects, 18 are railway projects, 3 are mixed rail-road projects, 2 are inland waterway transport projects and one refers to Motorways of the Sea. Some projects, such as the Channel Tunnel, the Northern European high speed network or the Perpignan-Figueras railway link, were completed several years ago. Others are under construction, such as the Lyon-Turin tunnel, the Brenner tunnel, the Rail Baltica link and the Fehmarn Belt link. This choice reflects a high priority to more environmentally friendly transport modes, contributing to the fight against climate change.

However, this mix of different transports was not sufficient to ensure rail interconnection, which is the most difficult to implement because of the train operating system based on hourly paths and very strict technical criteria. The road does not have these kind of constraints…

In addition, it was necessary to make a difference between goods flows, which are generally slower but heavier, and passenger flows based on high speed and daily volumes. The 30 TEN-T projects did not always reflect these specificities. This already shows that the unified railway, where all traffic and all railway policies are mixed, is not the right solution. A distinction between freight and passenger traffic is mandatory in a mobility policy.

Rather than spreading taxpayers’ money over hundreds of small lines – which would have led to lengthy political haggling – the idea was to identify the routes that generate large flows of trains and to harmonise them in terms of technology and timetable allocation. The concept of a rail freight corridor was born.

European routes for freight
Rail freight corridors are only one part of the TEN-E concept (TEN-T). They may involve multiple works but are more focused on operational efficiency on the existing network, using the assets already available. It is therefore a more rail-based initiative than the 30 TEN-T projects.

Back in 2005 an international corridor management approach was promoted among Infrastructure Managers (IMs) and Allocation Bodies (ABs). In 2010, the European Union adopted a Regulation concerning a European rail network for competitive freight (Regulation No 913/2010 of 22 September 2010). This Regulation requests Member States to establish international market-oriented RFCs to meet three sets of challenges. These include the strengthening of cooperation between Infrastructure Managers (IMs) on key aspects, such as path allocation, deployment of interoperable systems and infrastructure development; striking the right balance between freight and passenger traffic along the RFCs, while securing adequate capacity and priority for freight in line with market needs and ensuring that common punctuality targets for freight trains are met; and lastly, promoting inter-modality by integrating terminals into corridor management and development.

The annex to this regulation, as amended by Regulation (EU) No 1316/2013, lists 9 initial freight corridors to be put into service by the EU countries concerned by November 2013, November 2015 or November 2020. Siim Kallas, then vice-president of the European Commission in charge of transport, unveiled on 17 October 2013 the map of the 9 priority infrastructure corridors that were to be financed by the European Union, amounting to around €26 billion in co-financing to help build missing cross-border links, solve bottlenecks and increase the « intelligence » of the network.

These rail freight corridors (RFC), established in cooperation between infrastructure managers and capacity allocation bodies, allow harmonised international movement of freight trains on a cross-border axis. They aim to improve the quality of service offered to customers, putting them at the centre of attention.

The introduction of these corridors has two aims: 

  • Firstly, the train operator only has to contact one office to book his train paths, which simplifies administration and response times.;
  • On the other hand, these corridors will be the subject of a technical update, in particular through work intended to improve the flow of traffic, to raise the gauge as much as possible, but above all, to implement the ERTMS signalling system, level 1 or 2, which is beneficial for all traffic, including passengers.

Each rail freight corridor has a two-tier governance structure: 

  • An Executive Committee composed of representatives of the authorities of the Member States concerned; 
  • A Management Committee composed of representatives of the relevant infrastructure managers and capacity allocation bodies.

The Management Committee also creates advisory groups: 

  • A group composed of managers and owners of terminals located along the corridor;
  • A group composed of railway undertakings interested in the use of the corridor.

The infrastructure managers and capacity allocation bodies concerned jointly develop a catalogue of pre-set train paths for each corridor which will offer international train paths. These pre-arranged train paths are coordinated and can be combined into a single international application to better meet market needs. 

These train paths are protected against major changes. In addition to the licensed and certified railway undertakings, other applicants (shippers, consignors, etc.) can request capacity on the corridors. For the actual transport activity, the applicant must designate an executing railway undertaking, public or private.

Every new corridor has a Corridor One Stop Shop (C-OSS). This C-OSS is physically located at the headquarters of a single infrastructure manager who is appointed to manage it on a daily basis. This C-OSS simplifies path requests for international rail transport. The creation of this C-OSS allows applicants to make capacity requests in a single operation from the moment an international freight train crosses at least one border in a corridor. The Corridor Information Document (CID) provides information on each corridor. The Path Coordination System (PCS) is the only software for ordering pre-arranged train paths on the corridor, via the RailNetEurope (RNE) website. Each year, the management of these corridors issues a management report.

The article 18 of regulation (eu) 913/2010 concerning a european rail network for competitive freight requires rfc management boards to publish corridor information documents providing information on the rail infrastructure of each rail freight corridor (RFC), in particular as regards commercial and legal access conditions, thus facilitating the applicants.


A model to be reviewed
However, while there is some progress in matters of rail freight corridors, rail freight and railways more generally, such progress is simply too slow as compared to the other transport modes, namely road, where we witness, as of recently, disruptive innovations in terms of automatization and digitalization. This, of course, again increases modal competition. The logistics sector itself is subject to short innovation cycles, which is a challenge for rail transport. As explains the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), the establishment of RFCs have, however, not yet resulted in the anticipated momentum for increasing rail freight’s competitiveness. Little or no results have been achieved in the following fields which are foreseen in the regulation:

  • coordination of maintenance and renewal works;
  • capacity allocated to freight trains;
  • traffic management;
  • traffic management in the event of break down;
  • monitoring of quality through KPIs.

The interaction between different stakeholders within one corridor seems not always coordinated, not to mention the coordination between different corridors, as many freight trains run on more than one single corridor, not to mention the fact that many operators use several corridors.

In several railway circles, there is once again criticism of the overly national approach to certain decisions, particularly about the timetable for the work. However, this work has a multiple political content because it impacts on passenger traffic. In regional politics, nobody is looking further than the horizon of one’s electorate. Passenger traffic is a priority precisely because of the punctuality targets set by the political authorities. Corridor legislation cannot do much about this.

To take Germany as an example, these corridors will also be integrated into the Deutschland-Takt (D-Takt) system, the German clockface timetable, which is a concept focused exclusively on passenger transport. There are questions about the place of rail freight in the annually clockface timetable, which has priority for punctuality rates. The D-Takt is a typically national project and is not thought through in terms of corridors.

But beyond the civil works, there is also maintenance, which a key issue. This is managed by local entities of each infrastructure manager. It is these entities that draw up a work schedule well in advance. They sometimes have to decide two years in advance that the overhead line will be renewed over 20 kilometres in 2023 or 2024. But this period may not correspond to the supposed wear and tear of a switch, which will have to be renewed at a different time on the same railway line. This leads to a schedule of works that appears to be permanent. As each entity only manages 100 or 150 kilometres of the same corridor, it is possible to count how many regional entities there are between Rotterdam and Basel or Antwerp and Marseille. Each with their own planning!

The slow implementation of ERTMS is another matter. This implementation varies from country to country and from the targets assigned to the infrastructure managers. But on the other hand, some operators are still reluctant to equip their rolling stock for cost reasons. ERFA don’t hesitates to speak that cost of converting rolling stock to ERTMS is a threat which will reduce rail freight’s competitiveness all over Europe as long as there are no financing solutions in place (except the UK). It seems certain that many operators do not yet see the added value of the ERTMS, as we talk about the digitalization of the railways that these operators are calling for themselves. As explains Matthias Finger, Professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), it’s a typical chicken-and-egg problem: investments will only come if progress is made in terms of interoperability and, inversely, progress in terms of interoperability requires more investments. And this is a much broader problem which cannot be handled by corridors and the corridor approach.

It was therefore essential to see what measures could be taken to improve the situation. In the meantime, the new von der Leyen Commission has been set up, which has produced a plan called ‘Green Deal’, which is a unique opportunity for the railways to regain some of the space they have lost.

Toward a single network?
The Commission is currently in the process of finalising its evaluation on the implementation of Regulation (EU) 913/2010. The revision of the Regulation, as an important prerequisite for competitive freight and modal shift, is an opportunity to move away from a single corridor to a European Rail Freight Corridor Network approach.

We can draw on the experience of the energy sector: it emerged that a more robust integration of the network was achieved thanks to a combination of factors, including the existence of a clear legal mandate, the extensive use of digital tools (i.e., modelling, joint digital platforms), the adoption of common tools and plans, as well as the ‘intention to share’ expressed in the form of clear deliverables. The main challenges faced by the rail and energy sectors appear to be similar in regards to securing an adequate balance between the supranational and national levels.

Inspiration and lessons learnt can certainly be drawn from the Eurocontrol and ENTSO-E models (which represents 42 electricity transmission system operators from 35 countries across Europe), though the governance model for RFCs will need to be tailored specifically to the railway sector’s needs. In a recent presentation at the Florence School of Regulation, the idea was put forward to implement a ‘top-down’ approach to the governance of RFCs, whereby a permanent supranational entity would be entrusted with facilitating information exchange and coordination among freight trains, which are primarily cross-border in nature. The supranational railway network coordinator would be tasked with ensuring an integrated and holistic traffic coordination at higher level, and the improvement of capacity and connectivity with terminals, which are part of the infrastructure. Would what is done at Eurocontrol be impossible in the railway sector?

On 19 October 2020, the European Commission published its work programme for 2021. In its Annex I, the Commission announced an EU 2021 rail corridor initiative. It will include the revision of the Regulation 913/2010 and actions to boost also passenger rail. It is foreseen for the third quarter of 2021.

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