Putting goods back on the tracks

Some smaller countries are showing how efficiency-enhancing innovations can begin to shift some goods transport away from lorries.
It used to be that much of Europe’s freight travelled by train. But since the 1980s, rail has been overtaken by the more flexible heavy goods vehicles (HGV). According to Eurostat, half of all goods in the European Union now move by road, vs. only 11.7% by rail. The trend continues to favour road transport, which grew by 33.4% between 1995 and 2013, while rail rose by only 4.7%.

The U.S. example shows that this is not an inevitable development. In the U.S., a third of all goods are transported by rail, and this volume is estimated to grow by 88% until 2030. An important reason is that in North America, unlike Europe, freight trains do not share the same tracks as passenger trains. They are also five times longer and up to 10 times heavier than European freight trains, allowing them to carry larger loads.

hgv rail trains transport Gotthard fullwidth - Putting goods back on the tracks

Switzerland, home of freight trains

38% of goods are transported by rail. A further boost will come this year with the opening of the new 57-km-long Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest.

23-hour delays

The problems of European rail freight, however, are largely homemade. Explains Markus Hecht, head of the Rail Vehicles faculty at the Technical University of Berlin: “Freight trains are inflexible and unreliable. This is mainly because the technology used, even in Germany, is very out-of-date.” Compared to other EU countries, Germany carries the most goods by rail, but in conditions that are far from perfect. “One freight train in three is delayed – the average delay is 23 hours. There are many reasons for this, such as rolling-stock or signal failure, or even the priority given to delayed passenger trains.”

Price is not the issue: it still costs two and half times less to transport one tonne by rail than by road. Yet price counts for little when compared to the reliability of HGVs. Says Horst Wildemann, head of the Research Institute for Management, Logistics and Production at the Technical University of Munich: “With HGVs, smaller units get from A to B quicker. The fact that the price of diesel is so low at the moment is not helping rail freight either.” Even so, some of the smaller countries are pushing forward with rail freight. Austria, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland all use modern techno-logy and therefore gain time. The Belgian city of Antwerp, for example, uses bridge cranes stretched across the tracks to load and unload several trains at the same time – a much more efficient approach than old-fashioned shunting. With this system, Belgian railways can guarantee overnight deliveries within its borders – which is why Belgium transports 15% of its goods by rail, above the EU average.

Smart freight trains

Switzerland is a special case: 38% of goods are transported by rail. A further boost will come this year with the opening of the new 57-km-long Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest. This CHF 10 billion (€9 billion) project is partly the result of a 1994 decision by Swiss voters to shift transit freight traffic from road to rail as a way of protecting fragile alpine valleys.

For the past year, the Swiss Railways’ cargo division has been testing a system developed by Germany’s Bosch to build a digital network for freight traffic. This involves fitting a small box to wagons and connecting them through a digital network, thereby allowing freight trains to be tracked in real time. The system also provides data about the temperature inside wagons and any damage. About 150 of these systems are currently in use in Switzerland and it is also being tested in Germany, Austria and Belgium. There is also some movement at the European level. Under the Shift 2 Rail initiative, part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 innovation programme, countries hope to shift one-third of freight from road to rail by 2030. The improved digital networking of Europe’s freight traffic will play a key role: the first projects should be launched this summer.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel: Switzerland’s bet on the future of rail

Switzerland not only has Europe’s densest rail network, but many of its 5,630 km of tracks are in difficult, mountainous areas. The country’s latest masterpiece of ingenuity is the Gotthard Base Tunnel, opened in June of this year: its 57 km make it the world’s longest tunnel. Construction took 16 years, during which 24 million tonnes of rock were dug out.

Thanks to this tunnel, the trip from Zurich to Milan has been shaved by 50 minutes. The national railway company is looking to double both the number of passengers and the volume of freight by 2025. Other European tunnel projects could serve the same purpose: Istanbul’s Marmaray has brought Asia even closer to Europe since 2013, while the new Brenner Base Tunnel between Austria and Italy will boost north-south connections from 2025.

Markus Hecht (head of the Rail Vehicles faculty at the Technical University of Berlin), Horst Wildemann (TUM)