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Intermodal Forum: "Rastatt, never again"

Europe's intermodal community has met in Düsseldorf for an open discussion on how to make rail more stable and sustainable
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More than 200 professionals from rail freight undertakings, infrastructure services providers, intermodal operators, shippers and forwarders took part in the forum organised by Hupac in Düsseldorf, 6th December.

Triggered by the Rastatt crisis, speakers identified strategies and priority actions to overcome today’s weaknesses of the rail freight system. Contingency plans with back-up routings, improved international traffic management, and a clear responsibility of infrastructure managers as part of the supply chain are crucial factors for the future of rail freight transportation.

“We need to take this opportunity to tackle some well-known deficiencies in order to improve market conditions and promote modal shift,” said Bernhard Kunz, CEO of Hupac.

The breakdown of 150m of tracks in Rastatt in August 2017 and the subsequent closure of the Rhine Valley line for seven weeks led to the biggest rail logistics crisis ever experienced in Europe. While rail diversions via Germany, France and Austria covered only 1/3 of the demand, alternative transport modes such as the road and the Rhine were quickly overloaded and could not offer sufficient capacity. As a result, supply chains were at risk, and in some cases even production stops occurred.

During the Rastatt disruption:

  • railcars and locos ran short because the units were tied up in the north-south pipeline, and kep waiting for alternative routings
  • terminals stopped acceptance because of backlogs of train departures
  • engine drivers were insufficient because detours absorbed up to 2-3 times more resources

The improvement of interoperability throughout Europe is the basic requirement for sustainable rail freight servicese, note Michail Stahlhut, CEO of SBB Cargo International. The Rastatt disaster must be taken as an opportunity to switch “from survival into change mode.”

Rastatt has proved the need for a consistent international infrastructure management from a single source, for day-by-day operations, as well as for any incidents that may occur. Infrastructure capacity needs to be secured to 100% in case of planned track works and to 80% in case of disruptions. Rastatt, he said, was a "failure of interoperability."

Hans-Jörg Bertschi, president of Hupac, called for investments in redundancies. The left Rhine “missing piece” between Lauterbourg and Strasbourg” needs to be upgraded with double track and electrification in order to substitute the German line in case of need. A bonus/malus system should attribute responsibility to infrastructure managers for their service quality.

“All partners of the supply chain assume responsibility for their service. We need to redesign the role of infrastructure managers if we want to make real progress for the future of intermodal logistics."

A number of speakers stated that the situation was made worse by French insistence that the drivers of trains diverted to French tracks on the Rhine left bank spoke French.

It is hoped to provide a full report in the next edition of WorldCargo News. However, for now, the most anticipated speaker of the forum, Frank Sennhenn, CEO of DB Netz, stated that his organisation was in discussions with passenger and freight railway undertakings in Germany to discuss a bonus/malus system - penalties and incentives based on performance. A number of speakers referred to the example of the UK, where disputes between Netrail and passenger and freight TOCs are handled by the Office of the Rail Regulator.

Mr Sennhenn asked the forum to be patient, however, because DB Netze and its Rastatt tunnel contractors have gone to arbitration to assess the responsibilities and liabilities, if any, and the result would probably not be known until the end of 2018. 

This prompted Slyvie Charles, CEO of SNCF Logistics, whose Captrain and BLS services were badly disrupted, to ask whether anybody could really think that Rastatt was an "Act of God."

Summing up the one-day forum, Bernhard Kunz said that Hupac expects to give feedback on progress to the market at its General Assembly Meeting in Zürich on 1st June next year.

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