Railfreight transport – Challenges for the year 2050
A strategy paper presented by the International Union of Railways (UIC), which met in Portorož (Slovenia) in June, bears the ambitious title Challenges 2050. Railfreight transport is prospering and has a very favourable environmental reputation in many countries, but as a mode of transport it has to battle with a lack of international coherence in many places.
The 84th general assembly of the UIC took place at a historic spot this year – in 1921 the decision to create the multilateral Union Internationale des chemins de fer (UIC), whose brief is to develop international rail transport, was taken in the town of Portorož on the Adriatic Sea.
The UIC’s strategy paper Challenges 2050 is sufficient proof that the global railway organisation’s 240 members on five continents are still aware that much remains to be done, even after 93 years of international cooperation. In the railfreight transport sector success stories and ambitious infrastructure projects go hand in hand with a lack of international consistency and insufficient modernisation in our digital era.
Railways need space. For this reason, railfreight transport is of prime importance in countries that cover a large area. In Australia, for example, more goods are transported by rail than by road, and in Russia around 1.2 billion t of freight was hauled by rail in 2013.
China registered 2.9 billion tkm last year, which was on a par with the record level of 2012. The Association of American Railroads has already published figures for H1 / 2014, showing that a total of 9.5 million carloads of freight and 8 million teu were conveyed by rail in Canada, the United States of America and Mexico in this period. This represents an increase 2.3% and 5.8% respectively, compared to volumes recorded in 2013.
These slightly abstract figures are backed by superlatives in these countries. In Canada, for instance, the length of freight trains has been set at a maximum of 3,700 m and at 3,000 m for bulk shipments for safety reasons. The USA does not have such limitations, so that monster trains consisting of 295 wagons and several locomotives and measuring up to 5.5 km have been successfully tested.
China is deploying even longer freight trains for regular shuttle services between Datong and Qinhuangdao, to the north of Beijing.
Backlog in Asia and Africa
The examples above have primarily caught the attention of emerging market players. In the last decade, a large number of ambitious infrastructure projects have transformed the railway enterprises, and converted them from objects that had stood in the shadows of road haulage for many years.
A spectacular connection between the Orient and the Occident was ushered in at the end of 2013, with the inauguration of the 13.6 km long Marmaray rail tunnel in Istanbul (see ITJ Daily of 11 November 2013). Turkey has already earmarked EUR 3 billion for additional projects to expand its rail network. Saudi Arabia is seeking to merge its rail network and is also promoting a north–south railway, which will be used to transport raw materials from the north of the country to the Gulf ports.
Last year, India began to implement its target of setting up a 1,800 km dedicated railfreight corridor that will connect the Punjab in the northwest with Bengal in the east, and a second 1,500 km link between Mumbai and New Delhi. Around EUR 13.5 billion has been set aside for the development of these corridors.
Some African countries, together with foreign investors, are banking on the development of railfreight routes too. In May contracts for the construction of railtracks to Mombasa (Kenya), Rwanda and Southern Sudan were signed with Chinese companies in Nairobi. Two other major projects in Africa concern connections from the Moatize region in Mozambique to the coast, and from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. On top of that, the South African rail service provider Transnet has presented a USD 18.8 billion freight railway development plan for transporting raw materials.
Congruence needed in Europe
In directive 913 from 2010, the European Union outlined three main challenges for railfreight in Europe, which already has relatively dense rail connections. The domains pertain to closer multilateral cooperation in infrastructure policy, finding a better balance between freight and passenger transport and improving intermodal services.
However, as an integrated railfreight network is still on a rather distant horizon in some regions, nine pan-European freight corridors have been earmarked for expansion. The continent’s three different track gauges continue to present almost insurmountable hurdles, as do the five electricity grids and the seven different signalling systems. In addition, railfreight volumes, which began to decline in many Central and Eastern European countries in 1990, have not yet recovered.
Some progress has been registered since the end of 2013 in the corridor that runs across the continent from northern Italy to Rotterdam. However, the EU still needs to do a lot of preparatory work to achieve its declared goals of shifting 50% of all freight traffic transported between Dutch and Italian seaports to the railway by the year 2050.