Returning to the rails

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All aboard for the future: Rail transport hasn't said its last word.

freight trains at Maschen

In Europe, trains have never carried as many people and goods as today. Even so, only 7.6 per cent of all passengers choose the train and only 11.7 per cent of all freight is moved on tracks. Governments have tried for several decades to encourage greater reliance on trains, yet cars, lorries and planes are often still more flexible, efficient and cost-competitive. Despite this, trains offer many advantages that could promise a bright future: they don’t emit CO2, they can transport large volumes in a relatively short time and they are very safe. “Old-fashioned organizational structures troubled the railways for many years, but new regulations on a European scale have forced the railways to develop,” says Henrik Sylvan, head of the Centre for Railway Technology at DTU –Technical University of Denmark. The main challenges today are the automation of systems, the installation of uniform IT solutions and the development of new signalling and communication systems. “Train services should be faster so that travel times are halved, and the number of scheduled trains should be doubled,” he adds. “We simply need a revolution.”

Putting goods back on track

While rail freight has stagnated for decades, 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 per cent by rail. The trend continues to favour road transport, which grew by 33.4 per cent between 1995 and 2013, while rail rose by only 4.7 per cent.

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 per cent 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.

17.11.2008, Maschen, Niedersachsen, Deutschland - Gueterzuege und Waggons auf dem Rangierbahnhof in Maschen bei Hamburg. (Abend, Abendaufnahme, abends, Abendstimmung, aussen, Aussenaufnahme, Bahn, Bahngleis, Bahngleise, Bahnhof, beleuchten, beleuchtet, Beleuchtung, blaue Stunde, Container, Daemmerung, DB, deutsch, Deutsche Bahn, Deutschland, Die Bahn, Eisenbahn, Eisenbahnwagons, Europa, Gleise, Gueter, Gueterbahnhof, Guetertransport, Gueterverkehr, Gueterwaggon, Gueterzuege, Logistik, Maschen, Niedersachsen, Rangierbahnhof, Schienenverkehr, Transport, Verkehr, Waggon, Wirtschaft, Zuege, Zug, Zugtransport, Zugverkehr, QF, DŠmmerung, GŸter, GŸterbahnhof, GŸtertransport, GŸterverkehr, GŸterwaggon, GŸterzŸge, ZŸge) 00P081117D041CARO.JPG [MODEL RELEASE: NOT APPLICABLE, PROPERTY RELEASE: NO (c) Caro Fotoagentur / Andreas Muhs, Friedrich-Karl-Str. 13, 12103 Bln., tel. 030-75706507, fax 030-75706508,,, Bln. Spk., BLZ 10050000, Kto.: 1440040300 - Bei Verwendung des Fotos ausserhalb journalistischer Zwecke bitte Ruecksprache mit der Agentur halten - Foto ist honorarpflichtig !] (KEYSTONE/CARO/Caro / Muhs)

The marshalling yard in Maschen, near Hamburg, is Europe’s largest: 4,000 freight cars are sorted daily to form trains. Compared to other EU countries, Germany carries the most goods by rails. KEYSTONE/CARO/Caro / Muhs

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 per cent of its goods by rail, above the EU average.

passenger transport

Annual Kilometres per capita

Smart freight trains

Switzerland is a special case: 38 per cent 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.

► 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.

By Robert Gloy



1. Annual freight in million tonnes 2. Annual freight in billion tonne-km 3. 2011 data

Driverless trains: The difficult next step

The first partially automatic underground line began operating in London in 1967. Will autonomous locomotives one day move outside urban areas to carry people and freight from city to city? 

5604473 (9001147) FD (key/ol) Der 62-stündige Streik der Lokführer führt einem Bericht der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung zufolge zu massiven Behinderungen im Güter- und Personenverkehr. Eine Einigung sei aber bislang nicht in Aussicht, so der Vorsitzender der Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer (GDL), Manfred Schell, im Bericht. Während sich die Bundesregierung aus dem Konflikt weiter heraushalten will, fordert die Wirtschaft eine schnelle Lösung, so der Bericht weiter. U.B.z.: Deutschland, Hamburg, 16.11.2007: Streik der Gewerkschaft der Lokomotivführer (GDL) im Güterverkehr im Güterbahnhof Maschen. Deutsche Bahn AG on Strike. [KEYSTONE DIENSTBILD Nutzung nur mit Genehmigung und gegen Honorar, Beleg, Namensnennung und zu unseren AGB. Nur zur redaktionellen Verwendung. Honorare an: KEYSTONE Pressedienst, HASPA, BLZ 200 505 50, Kto. 1235130877] GDL, GDL-Streik, Lokomotivführerstreik, Lokomotivführer-Streik, Lokfüherstreik, Lokführer-Streik, Arbeitskampf, Arbeitsniederlegung, color, Deutsche Bahn AG, Deutschland, Hamburg, Streik, streiken, Warnstreik, Wirtschaft, 21. Jahrhundert, Lokführergewerkschaft, Gewerkschaft Deutscher Lokomotivführer, Lokführer, Lokomotivführer, Tarifkonflikt, Güterverkehr, Güterbahnhof, Außenaufnahme, Güterbahnhof, Güterumschlag, Gütertransport , Güterzug, Güterzüge, Querformat, Rangierbahnhof , Umschlag, Güterumschlag, Wagon, Waggons, Waggon, Wagons, Güterwaggon, Güterwaggons, Güterwagon, Güterwagons , Güterbahnhof Maschen, s03017, Nachtaufnahme, beleuchtet, Beleuchtung (KEYSTONE/KEYSTONE HAMBURG/Volkmar Schulz / ) === SWITZERLAND ONLY ===


In cities, driverless trains are forging their path as technology develops, in line of course with applicable regulations. In Grade of Automation 3 (GoA3) systems, no driver is at the controls, but an operator is on board to monitor door closing and handle any incidents that could disrupt train traffic. GoA4 requires no on-board staff. Starting, stopping and disruptions are handled remotely, for example on Paris metro lines 1 and 14, developed by Alstom. The system has proved successful. With the costs amortised after about 10 years, autonomous metros are both faster and safer. Not one fatal accident has been reported in 30 years.

“Against our morals”30

Alstom hopes to take the technology further, says Tanja Kampa (@TanJayKa), head of the group’s communication for Germany, Austria and Switzerland: “We’ve launched research programmes to explore applications beyond urban underground networks, especially for freight transport and trams.” These applications are rare in Europe and have seen limited development. “Alstom would like to focus on regional transport but is leaning towards driver-assist systems rather than full automation, which remains hypothetical,” Kampa adds, stressing the importance of each local context. While driverless trains could operate easily between Volkswagen plants, Europe can hardly follow the model of sparsely populated regions like Australia.

“The technology exists,” says Anne Froger of the Canadian group Bombardier. “What is holding back development is the risk of accidents. Could we accept a collision between a train and a school bus at a level crossing with no one at the controls? It would go against our morals.” Not to mention the challenge of autonomous trains operating on open tracks, unlike closed underground lines. “When pedestrians have access to train tracks, not having a human in the cab becomes a problem. Only a human driver can tell the difference between a collision with a wild animal and a human tragedy.”

A model for China

Given the challenge of aligning systems with existing infrastructure, some people have advocated building networks from scratch for a new kind of train. The Hyperloop system proposed by American entrepreneur Elon Musk (@elonmusk) has attracted attention recently, but the project draws extensively on such earlier concepts as the Swissmetro of the late 1990s. “Although they propose different maximum speeds, propulsion systems and pressure levels, the two systems are based on the idea of driverless capsules operated in reduced-pressure underground tubes,” explains Marcel Jufer, honorary professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and the project’s designer. The trains could connect Lausanne to Basel at breakneck speed or reduce the trip from Geneva airport to Lyon airport to a mere 15 minutes. Plans to build Swissmetro have long been stifled by budgetary constraints and competition from other major construction projects in Switzerland. However, these pressurised transport systems have inspired China: a low-speed loop has been undergoing tests since 2014 at Jiaotong Southwest University.

“Only a human driver can tell the difference between a collision with a wild animal and a human tragedy”

By Jean Christophe-Piot 

European rail technology’s international successes

Siemens, Alstom, Stadler Rail and CAF, the four major European rail suppliers, sell their products throughout the world. Here are some of the most remarkable recent non-European projects for each company. 

European rail

Click to enlarge

Journalist: Julien Calligaro

Graphics: Mateo Broillet

Rail safety: back in the spotlight

Anne Haxthausen of DTU : “Safety problems can have various causes, including IT bugs.” / Photo: Tom Ingvardsen

Trains are particularly safe. But IT bugs and problems with the signalling systems represent a constant security threat. The solution might be a common European control system.

What’s the most effective way of making train travel safe? Dominique Heynard, head of strategy and markets for Alstom’s signalling system, says it already exists. That solution is the European Train Control System, or ETCS, introduced by the European Union and designed by a coalition of leading rail industry partners. “We’ve had a safe and reliable train traffic control system in Europe since the late 1990s,” says Heynard.

The ETCS uses a cab computer to communicate with electronic beacons on the tracks known as “balises” to compare actual train speed with the maximum allowable. The system brakes automatically if a train exceeds that limit. So why do accidents still occur? “Because ETCS is not installed everywhere,” says Heynard.

“Each European country designed its own signalling methods and standards, totalling about 20 across the continent”

After the accident in Santiago de Compostela, a Spanish judge lamented the absence of a control system in the curve that the driver took at excessive speed. “Most high-speed lines now comply with European standards, but 10 per cent of the network still operates on national standards,” explains Heynard. The problem is that, historically, each European country designed its own signalling methods and standards, totalling about 20 across the continent. Interoperability and international traffic issues have only worsened over time. A Thalys that leaves Cologne for Amsterdam must be equipped with seven different control systems. On some lines, the locomotive even has to be changed at the border.

High costs8

Switching from a national system to ETCS is not cheap: both the infrastructure and the trains have to be fitted with the proper equipment. Deutsche Bahn, for example, will spend €8 billion over 15 to 20 years to guarantee maximum safety. Switzerland has equipped its network extensively. Denmark and Belgium’s are fully up to ETCS standard, and Norway will soon follow. Germany and France, which have denser networks, are lagging.

Even as ETCS continues to be deployed, the system will continue developing technically. To trim costs and standardise radio-signalling technologies, the railways hope to move away from trackside equipment. ETCS Levels 1 and 2 use trackside devices to detect the position of trains. With Level 3, which is currently being tested in Sweden, trains transmit their position themselves.

Avoiding bugs

But there’s more to safety than speed control. Robust information technology systems are also essential. “Safety problems can have various causes, including IT bugs,” says Anne Haxthausen, who leads one of the teams in a vast interdisciplinary research project, RobustRailS, at DTU — Technical University of Denmark. “Reducing them means lowering the risk of error of traffic control software,” adds David Pisinger, the researcher in charge of the RobustRailS project. “A major part of our work involves developing interlocking systems that define safe routes to prevent trains from derailing or colliding.” That’s quite a feat, considering the challenges of building systems capable of controlling networks on a national scale. The model designed by Haxthausen was successfully tested for Rail Net Denmark, the organisation that manages Denmark’s railway system, along the 55-km Roskilde-Næstved line.

Another key issue is disruption management. Smooth traffic is both safer and more reliable. That is the focus of the research led by Luuk Veelenturf of the Eindhoven University of Technology. He is working with the Dutch railway company to develop systems that can manage the impact of disruptions in real time, instantly replanning all affected train routes.

These solutions, integrated into ETCS, could boost the capacity of European trains to run more closely, side by side, without compromising their safety.

By Jean Christophe-Piot 



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