June 04, 2008
New Train Designs Boost Rail Freight In Europe
A Fortune article highlights the problems that long distance freight rail faces in Europe with incompatible national systems. New train designs can operate over more national borders.
Engineers at Bombardier's facilities all over Europe set out to invent a new train that could traverse Europe's patchwork of voltage levels, signal systems and other local quirks - while keeping this feature-rich locomotive affordable.
Why am I doing a post about this? If this article is correct then an amazingly small percentage of freight in Europe gets moved by rail.
Bombardier and its chief competitor Siemens (SI), the German engineering giant, see a huge opportunity. In the United States, half of all freight is shipped by rail. In Europe, only 10% is carted by train. Meanwhile, European highways are clogged, and truckers now pay fees to help offset pollution.
Would you have expected this? Europe has a higher percentage of passenger movement done by rail than America. Yet Europe's use of rail for freight is lower.
Maybe it's been practical for them to ship people by rail precisely because they *weren't* shipping freight by it?
What Brett said. I can't help but remember the complaints from several threads ago about passenger vs. freight traffic in the USA. It seems to be a one or the other situation.
Rail systems can be designed for high capacity - high latency, or low capacity-low latency. In other words, if you don't have a problem having your train stop every couple of hours, you can fit a lot more stuff on the track. If, however, you have trains filled with impatient people, you can't run as many trains.
In the US, Amtrak and freight trains share the same tracks on a system that is designed and managed for freight. This means that Amtrak is ridiculously slow. Between Richmond and Washington, for example, it is not uncommon for the Amtrak train to stop 3-4 times to let a freight train go by.
As much as folks complain about the U.S. rail system, it is remarkably efficient at moving stuff around.
If half of US freight is carried by rail I'd have to agree with Rail Rider - it must be doing some things right. Not that it couldn't be improved, no doubt in major ways. In Australia where I live rail has been neglected (with some significant exceptions like large sections of track made capable of carrying double stacked containers and the Darwin to Adelaide line completed and put into service), transport infrastructure spending going mostly to roads, but this could change. It is expensive to modernise and to build new track, but if the late 19th century and early 20th century engineers and industrialists could do it, surely it's not a lack of knowhow and capability that's stopping it. Twin or more tracks cost money but this is the kind of infrastructure that has a long life-span and could potentially be truly modernised at some time in the future - cuttings, bridges and tunnels aren't going anywhere. Personally I think some Australian rail would be well suited to solar electics - line the track with solar panels, vanadium battery stations along them. I suspect they'd produce an excess of power most days of the year.
Ken: Twin or more tracks do cost. But you make the good point that they last a long time. I would think that it is the first track that really costs. The first requires the right-of-way, the track crews, the railroad administrative organization, etc. Added tracks require mostly station modifications although some bridges and tunnels will also require major work.
But like all generalizations there would be places where the second track was very expensive, probably because the property for the extra width was not acquired years ago.
Solar panels along the track would be tempting for long-range electric trains. I suspect the idea would founder on maintenance costs. A big advantage of centralized solar farms is having the site closed to vandals and other mischiefs intended or not. Also maintenance people are immediately available if needed.
I can't know if Amtrack has done a good job or not. I do know what we ended up with. Not much! It may be that political factors simply made a better outcome impossible.
Many if not most of Amtrak's tracks are actually owned by the freight companies such as CSX. Outside of possibly the Northeast corridor, I know of no dedicated inter-city rail that is owned by a passenger rail system. Building new rail is a catch-22: nobody is interested in taking the train from city to city (outside of the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast U.S.) because it is too slow, so there is no clear ridership base to support building new dedicated rail lines that would resolve the speed issue.
Frankly, widespread high speed rail makes no sense in this country outside of the coasts. Things are just too spread out in "flyover land" to justify anything other than specific inter-city connections except perhaps a North/South line between Detroit and Houston cutting through Chicago, Milwaukee, etc. California is apparently going to fund an LA to San Fran high-speed line, but the projected costs for that are breathtaking.
I'd still like to see underground train tunnels getting more attention in China, India, Europe and the crowded bits of the USA. Boring the tunnels is energy intensive, but largely automated thanks to the all-in-one super-tunnel boring machine made these days. A tunnel avoids all of the right of way / existing infrastructure problems surface rail has and, barring geological barriers, can move in straight lines. An electrical motor running at a constant speed is a marvelously efficient thing. Multiple tracks could support both high capacity - high latency freight and low capacity-low latency passenger traffic.
We'd have to find a way to speed them up though, for any kind of long distance.
Brock: Absolutely right about tunnels. The cities that have subway systems are not sorry they spent the money years ago. Today major transportation investments are just not built - at least in the US- w/o big federal money and multiple state and local authorities bickering and contending for turf.
My totally unscientific observation is that all that modern management at least triples cost. And projects take decades instead of years.
On an unrelated note. I see the Bush administration has applied for a permit to actually finish a waste repository at Yucca Mountain. YM has been absorbing billions per year for several decades. Now the appropriate licensing agency has three more years to even consider whether to grant the permit. Opponents are already in court alleging defects in the application. Such is how America operates now.