Faced with mounting losses, SNCF will finally pull out of general "wagon on demand" services at the end of this year
All previous SNCF reforms aimed at staunching rail freight losses have baulked at quitting this segment on social grounds, but the losses, now running at E20M/day, are no longer supportable and the government, SNCF's sole stakeholder, has demanded action as part of an overall fiscal tightening round.
The new plan was recently unveiled by Sylvie Charles, who was appointed to head up SNCF Fret in January, with the specific task of implementing reform measures embodied in a new "master plan" for rail freight unveiled last September.
In the new system, single wagon services will be available only on corridors that can provide enough traffic for train loads at least three times/week in each direction. This means aggregating single wagon and part load traffic in consultation with shippers.
The new service has been labelled "multi-lot, multi-client" and the corridors on which it will be available should become clearer as talks progress. Customers will be required to make commitments, on a corridor by corridor basis, which they can change with a month's notice, but they must commit for at least three months.
The proposed reforms have already encountered opposition from transport and shipper groups, who argue that they will serve only to increase road traffic at the expense of rail and thus counter the supposed overall environmental thrust of the master plan.
On the other hand, in June the French track authority, RFF, signed an agreement with a number of supermarket chains and other large retailers and distributors (Auchan, Conforama, Casino, Castorama, Ikea, Intermarché and Leroy-Merlin) aimed at increasing activity in the rail freight sector. Initially, new combined transport services will be introduced on two corridors – Rennes-Lyon and Dourges (Lille)-Lyon – starting next year.
Ironically, Edifret, a specialist IT division of SNCF, recently came up with what is touted as the first real-time tracking system for single wagon shipments.
Rail freight has always been something of an information “black hole.” While truck drivers need no more than a mobile phone, track and trace parameters for railways are more complex - structure gauge and speed of trains, EMI due to catenaries, giving way to passenger trains, etc. However, proven systems have been developed for block trains and shuttle trains.
After a test phase, Edifret has begun rolling out the new system and, according to project manager Lionel Duclay, around 1000 wagons and 10 rail yards in several European countries will be involved.
Each wagon is equipped with an RFID tag that is read by a wireless GPRS telecom reader at set intervals along the track.
Installation costs are minimal since the trackside markers are powered by a ruggedised photovoltaic cell box, designed to last at least 15 years in a wide ambient range. In case sustained cloud cover leads to a power deficit, a charge controller automatically reverts the markers to a battery pack that can provide more than 10 days of autonomy. There are no cable connections of any kind.