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The glorious comeback of the freight train

by bastiaan Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:02:52 PM EST

I read an article with this inspiring title in the Dutch magazine for professionals, Intermediair. Dutch railways were privatised about 13 years ago, by splitting up the NS (Dutch Railways) into NS reizigers (passenger transportation), Prorail (infrastructure) and Railion (cargo). It soon became apparent that full privatization of passenger services was unrealistic, so all main lines are still a monopoly for NS. In general, people are not to impressed with the results of privatisation, but I (daily long distance train user for the last 6 years) think that in terms of service, punctuality and prices the situation would not much different if there had been no privatisation. However, rail cargo is a very different story. In the last ten years before privatisation, there was no growth in cargo transportation by rail. Since 1995, everybody could become a cargo carrier. Cargo increased from 3000000000 tonkilometers in 1996 to 5000000000 tonkilometers in 2006, a 66% increase, while transport by road only increased by 20% in the same period. At the same time, rail transport prices have fallen by 22%. Punctuality of cargo delivery has also increased.

According to the article, cross-border traffic is still a problem. Not only do different counties use their own signals, they also have their own currents (Netherlands 1500 Volt, Belgium 3000 Volt, Germany 15000 Volt and France 25000 Volt). Also, the drivers must speak the local language, since there is no international language like for air traffic. Although Belgium and France officially allow competition for rail cargo, it is difficult to impossible for foreign companies to get a licence.

The article concludes:

While privatisation may not always be the Egg of Columbus, it seems to work fine for rail cargo. In counties where the traditional state company is still responsible like France, rail cargo is declining, while in countries where private companies are running the cargo trains, like the Netherlands and Germany, rail cargo is growing. If the rest of Europe will allow and encourage real competition, rail cargo can take over a significant market from inland shipping and especially road transportation.

The article has little to say about the labour conditions, except noticing that Railion is now running the same amount of cargo with only half the people.
I'd be interested to hear about rail cargo in other European countries, but I think an integrated European rail cargo network would be good for the environment and would make economic sense. The Netherlands just finished a 160 km dedicated cargo line from Rotterdam to Germany, which will use 25000 Volt (the new European standard), to relieve the pressure on the overcrowded passenger lines. So how is rail cargo doing in your country?

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