Europe freight rail works to avoid another Rastatt disaster

Europe freight rail works to avoid another Rastatt disaster

Rhine-Alpine Gateway.

The Rhine-Alpine Gateway is one of Europe’s most important rail routes connecting the Mediterranean ports with the economic heartland of Central Europe, handling half of the trade between northern Europe and Italy via Switzerland. Photo credit: BLS Cargo.

Viable alternative routes to bypass rail disruption, train drivers, and controllers speaking the same language — and the posting of information on the internet — are some of the steps the rail sector has pledged to take to avoid a repeat of the two-month shutdown of the key Rhine-Alpine Gateway one year ago.

The corridor is one of Europe’s most important rail routes connecting the Mediterranean ports with the economic heartland of Central Europe, handling half of the trade between northern Europe and Italy via Switzerland.

Tunnel infrastructure work led to collapse

Tunnel infrastructure work caused a section of track at Rastatt between Basel and Karlsruhe to collapse on Aug. 12, and the line was only opened on Oct. 2, 51 days later.

The closure delivered a devastating blow to shippers trying to move their containers in and out of Europe via the Mediterranean ports, and the rail industry has struggled to rebuild customer confidence in the network.

The impact was acknowledged in a joint statement yesterday by the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), the Network of European Railways (Netzwerk Europaischer Eisenbahnen: NEE), and the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR).

“Never again must the closure of a small stretch of railway line lead to such chaos and wide-reaching economic damage,” the statement noted.

That wider economic cost was estimated to be at least $2.5 billion. Of the 8,262 trains that could have operated with a clear track over that 51-day period, only 2,627 trains could run during the Rastatt incident.

But the joint statement from the rail operators said there had been lessons learned and steps taken to address the weak points in Europe’s rail operations.

“Since Rastatt, all sides of the rail sector, with the support of the European Commission, have committed to tackling the main challenges facing rail freight. Strengthening rail’s competitiveness and rebuilding customer confidence is at the heart of the action plan,” the statement said.

Improvements will be made to the rail operations from the start of the 2019 timetable, some of which appear strikingly obvious.

One route flaw — a lack of alternatives

One of the loudest complaints made by shippers importing containerized cargo into Europe during the Rastatt closure was the lack of alternatives for their stranded rail freight. With the direct northern route closed, shippers struggled to find other rail options or were forced to other modes.

At the time of the crisis, Godfried Smit, the European Shippers' Council (ESC) policy manager for inland transport and trade facilitation, said it cost ESC members an additional 100 euro to 150 euro ($123 to $184) per TEU to transport containers affected by the route closure.

“It was difficult for shippers to find solutions because of all the maintenance work on the other routes, and if you have to suddenly buy transport on the spot market it is more expensive than the prices you will have had on longer-term contracts,” he said.

Dirk Stahl, CEO of supply chain services company BLS Cargo, said he had to try to deviate 450 trains and cancel 370 others during the Rastatt closure.

“We looked for deviation routes to take those trains but it was not easy. We only had two options — one via France, and the other via Germany and Lake Constance, but parts of that route are not electrified and drivers speak different languages. On the French side the systems are not harmonized,” he said.

To try to address this, one of the positive moves made in the past year by the rail industry is the preparation of “off the shelf” rerouting options and traffic management scenarios that minimize disruptions, including information on technical parameters and other operational requirements.

This is aimed at ensuring trains can keep running in the event of disruption, a regular occurrence across the European rail network with its complex cross-border network, many national regulators, and privatized and semi-privatized rail operators and infrastructure managers.

ERFA, NEE, UIRR statement

The joint ERFA, NEE, and UIRR statement agreed with off-the-shelf rerouting options but said they should include an estimation of the capacity of trains that could be absorbed. “Where the re-routing options provide insufficient capacity or were technically or operationally incompatible, investment in the infrastructure and in the single European rail network should be identified as a priority,” the statement noted.

However, while the major incidents capture the headlines, the joint statement called for contingency measures to be developed for incidents that lasted less than three days, saying even disruptions of a short duration have a negative impact on the quality of rail services offered.

This was something Michail Stahlhut, CEO of SBB Cargo International, pointed out at an ERFA gathering in Brussels earlier this year.

“Every day we have disruptions with traffic jams on some routes and we have to open the other networks and bypass routes, not only for big disruptions but also for the day-to-day delays,” he said. “A four-hour standstill with 600 tons of freight, with a value of 300 euro per ton, affects the whole industry.”

Other measures that have been taken to improve the network efficiency of rail include adopting English as the main language of communication between infrastructure managers and railway companies during international disruptions. At least one English-speaking dispatcher in national traffic control centers will be guaranteed in every shift from 2020.

National infrastructure managers in Europe cooperate at the EU level and manage cross-border operations, operability, and maintenance works. One infrastructure manager will take the lead in coordinating international cooperation and manage the available rerouting capacity.

The ERFA, NEE, and UIRR statement felt that an effective organization and coordination of line closures or restrictions was a good basis for better management when there are unplanned disturbances.

This, it is hoped, would enable fast reaction times to ensure that relevant reroutings and mitigation decisions are taken within the first 24 hours. Within 36 hours of an incident taking place, a rough indicative timetable should be provided.

New rules from 2019 will avoid “ambiguity and discrimination” when it comes to allocating capacity on disrupted lines and guarantee a share of capacity between annual timetable traffic and ad-hoc traffic.

Shift to internet-based written communication

A somewhat startling measure, considering the vast and complex nature of the European rail network, was the move to replace telephone conferences and complicated communication chains with internet-based written communication. The advantages of this approach include the ability of all stakeholders to simultaneously access relevant information, and for rail companies to provide information on their resources and assets should a crisis unfold.

But one significant issue that is a key component of every contract and affects all parties involved in the transport of cargo remains unresolved — liability and compensation.

“The issue of liability must be addressed, not only to resolve the still open compensation payments expected by those who have been impacted by the Rastatt disaster, but also to ensure that in the future an infrastructure manager’s liability is covered under an insurance policy,” the ERFA, NEE, and UIRR statement said.

With so many different parties involved — shippers, forwarders, rail operators, infrastructure managers, and national and European regulators — finding solutions is not a straightforward or speedy process. However, it is crucial if the European Commission is to be successful in encouraging shippers to shift more volume of their cargo from road to rail. At the moment road freight is actually growing its market share.

Contact Greg Knowler at and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.