’The cost of freight must be cut by 50% - and then by 50% again’ was the challenge set by Lyn Fairbrother, Managing Director of the European Railway Research Institute, at its second interactive conference in Paris on February 4-5, organised in conjunction with the Association of American Railroads.

The first halving could be achieved through more efficient operation, and the second through innovative technology. If Fairbrother’s tone was a little alarmist, it may reflect his impression that Europe’s railways are preoccupied with reinventing the wheel, rather than using those already available. ’We have to get rid of the idea of starting at square one - or rather square zero - each time, and in each country’, he insisted.

European engineers understandably want to use their creativity to solve the problems they see. Yet in many cases answers may have already been found outside Europe. Last month we reported on progress in North America with electronic brake technology (RG 2.98 p95). ECP brakes gave such an improved response on BNSF block trains that, to management’s surprise, brake wear increased slightly - drivers being able to approach speed restrictions faster, and brake later and harder. But ECP brakes offer considerable benefits in terms of train maintenance and fuel costs.

Delegates asked whether ECP braking could be adopted in Europe, what the investment case would be, and what standards should be set. There is almost too much scope among the technologies available. One choice is between a train wire - proven in service but requiring all vehicles to be equipped - or radio, with more potential for data transmission and remote control but needing more development work.

Europe’s railways face unrelenting competition from road haulage, and must drive down costs ruthlessly. Although the German EBAS system offers a domestic solution for modular freight trains such as CargoSprinter, and the Train Coupling & Sharing project, for most other railways this would simply be too expensive. If technology must save the railway a quarter of its current costs, whatever is chosen will have to be cheap to buy, install and maintain, and offer long term savings. And that means a standard system and competing suppliers to keep unit costs low.

Another hot topic was integrated automatic couplers to replace drawhooks and buffers. Again it was recognised that operational benefits could be diminished by the costs of a long transition period.

Europe’s engineers were obviously impressed by the achievements of their North American colleagues. Their challenge is to drive down costs, and this should include imported technology where appropriate. o