Global railway associations highlight post-COVID mobility improvements

A trio of global railway associations have noted that rail is part of the solution to the linked crises of climate change and coronavirus (COVID-19).

In a joint statement, the associations highlight how mobility is key to creating trade and prosperity, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe, rail accounts for 7.6 per cent of passenger and 17.6 per cent of freight transport, while only producing 0.5 per cent of the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions.

During the COVID-19 crisis, rail also provided an essential service, by enabling the movement of essential workers and crucial goods.

Noting that the current ways of doing business are not enough in future, the International Union of Railways (UIC), the International Association for Public Transport (UITP), and the European Rail Industry Association (UNIFE), set out areas where mobility will need to be improved, committing to a sense of urgency in updating transportation.

“Railways have demonstrated their resilience and their capacity to deliver essential services even in these difficult circumstances. We all know that railway and public transport are the key for a sustainable future, provided that they are able to implement seamless multimodal mobility networks,” said François Davenne, UIC director general.

The three primary areas for change are customer experience, increased capacity, and an increased recognition of the importance of collective travel on rail rather than in individual vehicles. Technologies such as flow management to adapt to consumer patters, the design of intelligent infrastructure networks to optimise existing systems, and autonomous rail vehicles are identified as areas for rail to pursue.

Together, the associations welcomed work done by the EU to boost rail travel, but also pointed to the need to continue to invest in infrastructure, rollingstock, and research to meet future challenges, said Philippe Citroen, UNIFE director general.

“UNIFE believes that the [European Commission]’s recent Multiannual Financial Framework and Next Generation EU proposals are powerful recovery instruments that can help complete EU Green Deal objectives, but they must be mobilised for the decarbonisation of European transportation. This is only possible through a greater multimodal mobility shift with rail at its backbone.”

Recognising the value of public transport will be indispensable to ensuring the resilience of cities in the future said Mohamed Mezghani, UITP secretary general.

“Public transport and the environment are inextricably linked and with a strong local network, emissions are lowered and our cities become healthier and more sustainable.”


Preference shifts towards rail to deliver international cargo

Transcontinental rail networks could have the potential to overtake cargo movements via air and sea.

Mail-only trains from China are helping clear the large backlog of mail destined for Europe and deliver essential medical supplies.

In a world first, The ‘China Post’ CR Express, carried mail and two containers of medical supplies from Chongqing, China to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania on April 4.

The ‘China Post’ CR Express block train has a total of 44 containers with about 300 tons of postal parcels, including 42 containers of international postal parcels from Beijing, Guangdong, Hunan, and Chongqing, and two of medical supplies purchased by the Lithuanian government. 

China Post decided to start an emergency program to send out those international postal parcels via Youxinou International Railway instead of mailing them by air from Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

It cuts what was a five-week shipping period to about two weeks, and costs 80 percent less than airfreight.

Yuxinou International Railway stated in early April that it plans to dispatch one or two block trains of international postal parcels every week.

Following this initiative, Maersk has now introduced its first rail service from China to Turkey as a part of the Maersk Intercontinental Rail service network.

Kasper Krog, head of AP Moller – Maersk Intercontinental Rail, said after successfully launching its Intercontinental Rail (ICR) service from China to Europe three years ago, the company has seen an increase in demand by its customers for this particular service from different locations across both Asia and Europe.

“Due to its strategic geographical location, wide industry sector, as well as all ambitious initiatives taken by the government to improve the rail infrastructure across the country we decided to launch ICR in Turkey not only for those companies located within the country but also as a link between Asia and Europe,” he said.

With the help of a feeder network of Sealand, owned by Maersk, the ICR offers its customers links to Black Sea, Eastern Europe, and Southern European countries through the port of Korfez in Izmit.

The rail service is expected to benefit customers who require fast delivery of goods in the automotive and technology industries.

Australia is improving its rail infrastructure at the port by providing a new rail operating framework inside the Port of Melbourne.

Brendan Bourke, CEO of Port of Melbourne said the $125 million project is aiming to increase the amount of containers moved by rail, improving operations at the port, with construction expected to commence before the end of this year.

Sal Milici, Freight and Trade Alliance (FTA) head of border and biosecurity, said increased rail utilisation is necessary to meet the long term forecasted trade growth.

“We applaud the initiative being driven by the Port of Melbourne which will ultimately facilitate the expansion and incentivisation for commercial interests to invest in metropolitan intermodals,” he said.

“An important element of our post COVID-19 economic recovery will be on a strong and vibrant manufacturing and agriculture sectors. A seamless interface to the port for these exporters will be essential.”

Increased appetite for air to rail switch

If concerns around climate change were not enough, modelling by Swiss bank UBS is showing that more people will be looking to switch from air to train travel in Europe following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The report, released by UBS Evidence Lab, highlights that a number of air routes within the EU are at risk of losing passengers to rail. Those most at risk include routes from Berlin to Frankfurt and Munich, London to Paris and Edinburgh, and Madrid to Barcelona.

While most of the routes most affected are relatively short, the report notes that travellers are having an increasingly higher tolerance to longer rail journeys, which could be taken faster by plane in the same corridor.

“Data from a UBS Evidence Lab survey of 1,000 people in four European countries and China suggests leisure travellers would tolerate 5-6 hours on a train, and EU business travellers up to four hours vs the general consensus of 2-3 hours.”

The report notes that service and frequency are drivers for demand for longer train journeys, and that competition among operators can often encourage improvements in these areas.

The report links the growing appetite for rail to current concerns about COVID-19, as well as wider demands for net-zero carbon by 2050.

“The Covid-19 outbreak is showing industrialised countries not only what clean air means and how to cope without travelling, but also how a cleaner environment and healthier populations cope better with diseases.”

While the report authors note that some low-carbon investments may be diverted to support the transport and travel industries, countries will continue to push towards net zero by 2050, while consumers will continue to look for travel options that take the least time. Increased funding to meet these twin demands will grow the market for European high-speed rail and associated supplies of rollingstock, signalling, controls, and brakes.

Source : UBS Evidence Lab

Design contracts awarded for Latvian section of Rail Baltica

Two contracts have been awarded for the Latvian section of Rail Baltica.

The combined contracts, worth over €20 million ($34.82m), cover the design of track in Latvia between the Estonian border and the Lithuanian border. Funding is split between the EU, which is contributing 85 per cent of the budget, and the Latvian government, which is contributing the remainder.

The first section, from Vangaži, a town in central Latvia, to the Estonian border has been awarded to a consortium of Spanish engineering firms INECO and Ardanuy.

The second section, from Misa, south of Riga, to the Lithuanian border, was awarded to Spanish consultancy IDOM Consulting, Engineering, Architecture.

The contracts cover the design of bridges, road viaducts, railway viaducts, culverts, and animal crossings.

“With the signing of the two contracts, design activities are ongoing on the entire line of Rail Baltica in Latvia as well as in the two passenger terminals in Riga Central Station and airport,” said Agnis Driksna, chairperson of the Management Board of RB Rail AS.

Tālis Linkaits, Minister of Transport of the Republic of Latvia, stressed that large rail infrastructure projects such as these can restart countries’ economies following coronavirus (COVID-19) containment measures.

“I encourage all companies to actively follow the development of Rail Baltica and participate in future procurements, as the project is progressing regardless of the Covid-19 situation in Europe. The project implementers are working online and the work is proceeding according to plan,” said Linkaits.

Rail Baltica is a multinational project linking Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithiuania and Poland with a standard gauge rail line. The largely greenfield project will allow for passenger and freight transport between the Baltic countries and connections to the rest of Europe. The project is part of the EU’s Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) and a priority project for the bloc.

Rail the backbone of reliable international freight

Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused major disruptions to international supply chains, not all freight and logistics networks have been affected equally.

As countries around the globe have closed their borders to air freight, due to the restrictions on passenger flights which carry most airborne cargo, shipments via rail have continued unabated, including long haul routes from China to Europe. Additionally, seaborne freight has been first hit by shutdowns in China and now by lockdowns in the US and Europe, causing freight liners with large capacities to cut back services.

Into this situation has come rail freight, which within Europe has bypassed kilometres long lines of trucks stops at internal borders, and has picked up the slack left by ocean-going lines being reduced. In mid-March, DHL announced that while routes via air were uncertain and blank sailings (cancelled ship cargo services), rail freight continued as normal.

“All DHL Global Forwarding Rail services, including FCL and LCL service from China to Europe (Westbound) and Europe to China (Eastbound), continue normal operations,” the company announced on March 10.

More recently, Finnish logistics operator, Nurminen Logistics has announced the schedules of its Helsinki, Finland to Hefei, China service. Senior vice president sales, Mikko Järvinen, said that flexibility is key.

“Everyone has had to improvise with these disturbances in international logistics. One of the tools we have had for our customers has been the fast cargo train service,” he said.

With the demand for essential medical supplies more critical than ever, and with China manufacturing many of these goods, a reliable shipping option has needed to be found, and in this case, that has been rail.

According to Chinese media agency Xinhua, the first quarter of 2020 saw a 15 per cent increase in freight rail trips between China and Europe, and an 18 per cent increase in freight units. From March 21 until the beginning of April, China had sent 333,800 pieces of epidemic control supplies via rail to Italy, Spain and other European nations.

Within Europe, logistics operators were hit hard by border closures within the Schengen zone. Which in one case at the border between Germany and Poland led to a line of trucks stretching for 50 kilometres. In the Czech Republic, the border into Slovakia is clogged with 30 kilometres of trucks. Rail, however, is continuing across borders without any stops with Austrian operator Rail Cargo Group announcing on March 24 that all freight trains are running on schedule without any restrictions.

Furthermore, rail has also proven its flexibility. In one instance, an urgent shipment of pasta from Italy to Germany was hauled by rail at short notice. DB Schenker transported 400,000 packages of pasta, over 200 tonnes, for retailer Aldi.

“The current Coronavirus pandemic emphasises the importance of reliable supply chains. Logistics keeps the world running, as demonstrated by our solution for ALDI to transport pasta from Italy to Germany on short notice,” said Christian Drenthen, board member for land transport at DB Schenker.

Transporting cars by train cuts emissions by 75 per cent

Automaker Volvo Cars has found significant emissions reduction by shifting the movement of cars from road to rail.

The company has utilised rail to transport vehicles from a production plan in Ghent to a depot in Italy, and reduced CO2 emissions by 75 per cent. On a separate route from Ghent to Austria, emissions were cut by half.

The Swedish-headquartered carmaker, owned by Chinese company Geely, was previously using trucks to transport the newly made cars within Europe. However, internationally, Volvo cars uses rail to transport vehicles in the US and China.

Two trains per week take Volvo cars made in China to Europe. Trains are also used to move cars within China and to Russia.

In the US, cars assembled in Charleston, South Carolina, are moved by rail to depots around North America.

“When we said we planned to significantly reduce emissions across all our operations, we meant it,” said Javier Varela, senior vice president of manufacturing and logistics at Volvo Cars. “Our logistics network is just one piece of that puzzle, but an important one nevertheless. This is one example of our commitment to reducing our impact on the environment through meaningful, concrete steps.”

The move to rail forms part of the company’s wider strategy to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent per car between 2018 and 2025. The plan involves a 25 per cent reduction in operational emissions, which covers logistics. The company overall aims to be climate neutral by 2040.