Strong views about the efficacy of competition as a tool to drive up the quality of European rail freight services were expressed at the EurailFreight conference in München on May 30

GIVING the keynote speech at a reception to open the EurailFreight conference in München on May 29, Klaus Zumwinkel, President & CEO of Deutsche Post World Net, said that 'the free spirit of the market is more efficient than government bureaucracy'. Rail was simply 'not competitive', he warned, adding that it was 'too slow and too unreliable' and that connections with other modes were 'too poor'.

Some delegates took this call for action to heart on the following day, although the Executive Director of the Community of European Railways & Infrastructure Companies Johannes Ludewig insisted that the European Union was relying too much on competition to shift freight traffic from road to rail.

Even as delegates were debating the issue, Connex became the first operator to run an open access train on RFF tracks, although the test train involved was just a light engine (above). Not until June 13 did the first revenue-earning train operate, marking the long-awaited start of competition with incumbent operator SNCF.

In Germany, open access operators increased their market share from 7% in 2003 to 10% in 2004, but in a EurailFreight Declaration signed by DB Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn, UIC Chairman Benedikt Weibel, CER Chairman Aad Veenman and Vice-Chairman of Unife Hans Schabert the wording reflected muted enthusiasm: 'competition may well be a necessary condition for boosting rail freight volumes and rail freight quality'.

Mehdorn predicted that competition will result in the emergence of a few big railway companies, as in the USA, but he also took the opportunity to call for lorry tolls to be doubled to give fairer inter-modal competition. Former Transport and Competition Commissioner Karel van Miert described the development of road pricing in several countries as 'good news', but there was concern that compensation measures made the tolls meaningless.

Several speakers agreed that competition was working on the busy north-south corridor between Rotterdam and northern Italy, but delegates pointed out that there was no sign at all of on-rail competition developing on the east-west axis where major growth is expected as eastern Europe integrates more closely with the west.

There were mixed views about developments in eastern Europe, but Chief Executive of Hungarian State Railways Zolt? n M? ndoki said that Hungary had 'successfully stopped the decline of railways', adding that MÁV wanted to avoid the mistakes made in western Europe. 'I don't care about volumes - we must make more money and profit', hinting that privatisation was 'not a distant hypothesis'.

Janos Berényi, President of Hungarocombi and Vice-President of the International Union of Combined Road-Rail Transport Companies, declared pessimistically that 'all railways are backward: bad infrastructure, not sufficiently electrified and too many personnel'. But simply throwing large sums of money at infrastructure improvements was not a short-term answer to rail freight's problems. It was left to Chief Executive of English, Welsh & Scottish Railway Keith Heller to point out that in many cases better use could be made of existing assets to raise capacity. By the same token, he suggested, it was important that infrastructure managers were fully accountable to train operators, who have to deal face-to-face with the end customers.

  • CAPTION: On June 13 Connex operated its first open access freight train in France, when a Vossloh G1206 diesel loco left Dugny with 20 wagons of limestone on a 180 km trip to the steelworks at V?€?lkingen in Germany. The departure was delayed for 4h by demonstrators blocking the line, until police used teargas to clear the way. As a pre-service trial run, Connex operated a light engine over the route on May 30
  • CAPTION: Aad Veenman, Chairman of the Community of European Railways & Infrastructure Companies and President of Netherlands Railways, signs the EurailFreight Declaration with Dr Benedikt Weibel, Chairman of the International Union of Railways and President & Chief Executive of Swiss Federal Railways
  • CAPTION: The first test trains on the Betuwe Route began running between Sliedrecht and Gorinchem on June 8, using a SBB Class 484 and Railion Class 189 loco to test the 25 kV electrification. The following week, Holland Railconsult and Alstom began testing the ETCS Level 2 train control equipment on the same section. ProRail CEO Bert Klerk said at Eurailfreight that ATB would be installed as a back-up to ERTMS on the Betuwe Route, ensuring that 'we will be ready in 2007'