US INTERMODAL SYSTEM INCOMPATIBLE WITH EUROPE, TRANSPORT EXECUTIVES SAY

US INTERMODAL SYSTEM INCOMPATIBLE WITH EUROPE, TRANSPORT EXECUTIVES SAY

European transport operators hoping the U.S. intermodal industry will serve as a model for fledgling road-rail services in Europe are in for a disappointment, a group of industry executives said.

Shippers, freight forwarders and truck, rail and ocean-carrier operators, attending the International Maritime Industries Forum here, expressed concern that differences in distance, regulatory structure and philosophy could mean that the American intermodal experience cannot be transferred to Europe.The key problem, many executives said, is the difference in the distance between European freight hauls and those in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, the average rail haul is 20 miles, said James Davis, the forum's chairman. In the United States, the average rail haul is closer to 1,500 miles, said Phillip C. Yeager, chairman of Hub Group Inc., the largest intermodal marketer in the United States.

There's also a major difference between U.S. and European railroads, said Alain Poinssot, head of the French National Railroads' freight operations. In Europe, railroads are designed for passenger traffic, unlike the United States, where they are geared toward freight.

And shipping freight by railroad costs double in Europe what it does in America, he noted, citing a study by the Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais.

European trains are lighter and smaller and loads are limited. A typical freight train in France is less than 2,100 feet long, while in the United States, they can be two miles in length.

In Europe, maximum tonnage hauled by a train is only 1,600 net tons, compared with the 20,000 tons and more allowed on board in the United States, Mr. Poinssot said.

There's also the problem of pricing. With the opening of Eastern Europe, Germany's railroads cannot compete with the bargain basement prices charged by Eastern European carriers, said Gerhard Stieler, a cargo official with the Deutsche Bundesbahn (DB), the German government railroad.

DB started an intermodal service on the German-Polish border, where trucks routinely wait 20 hours - and as many as 40 hours - before entering Poland. But the service had to be canceled because no trucker used the rails.

"This shows the extent to which we don't have a chance," he said.

Many panel members also complained about the unfair rules for motor carriers, saying that truckers are simply not being asked to pay enough for using the roads.

As long as governments fail to charge truckers appropriately, railroads will remain at a competitive disadvantage, said Juergen Direcks, transport director at Standard Elektrik Lorenz and head of the German Shippers' Council liner shipping committee.

But Europeans freight operators still long for U.S.-type intermodal service. Mr. Yeager said six of the seven Class 1 U.S. railroads are profitable in an industry in which costs today are lower than they were in 1978.

However, he sees hope for European intermodalism, particularly as environmental pressures heat up from the ever-growing traffic jams.