ANY COMPARISON of the prevailing technologies on both sides of the North Atlantic will demonstrate how inadequate are today's rail freight operations in Europe.

Let us overlook for now the continuing problem of pathing priorities, which still sees premium freight trains playing second fiddle to secondary passenger services. The low payloads and slow speeds specified in the current standards for international operation present major obstacles to the industry's attempts to compete with other modes.

The AAR standards for North American freight cars in interchange service have been regularly updated, thanks to ongoing research by the major railroads and AAR subsidiary TTC Inc at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado. Standard practice includes 36-tonne axleloads, AEI tags, and wayside monitoring to detect vehicle failures. At the same time, the effects of heavier axleloads, such as rail wear, RCF and ballast degradation, are being thoroughly researched to understand and optimise whole-life costs on both sides of the wheel-rail interface (RG 9.07 p539).

Perhaps as a result of the European autocoupler debacle, a lack of will amongst state railways, or the absence of any proper research, the standards for wagons operating internationally in Europe remain much as they were 60 years ago. As RFF's Christophe Keseljevic remarked to us last month, 'we are living in the middle of the 19th century as far as freight trains are concerned'.

The RIV standards have been largely absorbed into the TSI for conventional railways. Maximum axleloads of ?22·5 tonnes and a top speed of ?120 km/h prevail, and only in a few cases have there been serious attempts to introduce heavier axleloads or faster freight trains.

Liberalisation is intended to encourage competition, and new entrants are starting to question the standards. Partly to address the pathing issue, groups such as Ferrmed and New Opera are lobbying for creation of dedicated international freight corridors. But Ferrmed also wants enhanced specifications which would permit longer, heavier and faster trains.

It may be pushing at an open door. Enshrined in the mission of the European Railway Agency is an objective to improve rail's competitivity with other modes. And we understand that plans are taking shape for a European test centre dedicated to freight train research - although it may prove difficult to find a location that enjoys such a wide open space as found in Colorado.

Investment in the TEN-T corridors (p7) is welcome, but if the anticipated doubling in freight tonne-km over the next 15 years is to be achieved, more radical measures will be needed. A good hard look at enhanced freight train standards is long overdue, and some serious research is essential.