NINE years after European transport ministers gingerly opened the gate to liberalised rail services with the signing of Directive 91/440 in Luxembourg, open access entrepreneurs and companies with substantial rail business are starting to exploit the opportunities. As well they might, given that the International Union of Combined Road-Rail Transport Companies complained in May that a year's survey of its services revealed that 40% arrive more than 30min late. UIRR President Werner Külper suggested at the organisation's annual general meeting in Budapest at the end of May that not having locos or crew available for services that are booked well in advance is 'clearly a management failing'.
Given the national railways' wish to retain control of path allocation, major users of rail services are pushing hard to break into the market by running their own trains with their own locos, or contracting with third parties for haulage. Swiss intermodal company and UIRR member Hupac is among those expanding independent operations; it plans to acquire three locos following the launch of a thrice-weekly open access service at the end of May between Köln and Roma. Hupac has arranged for German independent HGK to provide traction north of Mannheim - HGK acquired its first Class 145 electric loco on May 25, and put it into service four days later.
For now the scale of open access operations remains tiny, but the new arrivals are keen and persistent. In Italy, several independent companies have lodged licence applications with the transport ministry. One is Rail Traction Co, which plans to launch two piggyback services a day each way between Verona and München this summer with a view to stepping up to eight round trips by 2002. RTC is owned by Autobrennero, Reset 2000 and Ferrotramviaria.
In Denmark, Privatbanen Sønderjylland EuroRail and TGOJ this month begin hauling 10 trains a week between Padborg and Malmö for Intercontainer-Interfrigo, increasing to 20 by the end of the year. The two were awarded rights to run on the Banestyrelsen network last year (RG 1.00 p3). TGOJ last month agreed a £3m 10-year lease with HSBC Rail for two General Motors Class 66 locos. Due for delivery next month, they will have both Swedish and Danish ATP (p424), and could be followed by 30 or 40 more.
ICF is rethinking its operational strategy and has already applied to join the open access ranks. It is now setting up InterRailServices GmbH in Berlin as a joint venture to start running services to and from the CIS in January 2001. A second venture called ICA Romania SRL will start to develop intermodal operations from Bucuresti.
Attempts to demonstrate that there are better ways of running freight trains are increasingly common. As part of the Innovative Rail Intermodal Services (IRIS) project, Dürener Kreisbahn, Belgian National Railways' freight division B Cargo, Düsseldorf Inland Port, Inter Ferry Boats and the Port of Zeebrugge sought to show in May how containers could be hauled economically between Düsseldorf and Zeebrugge. Promoter SCI Verkehr had hoped to use a CargoSprinter, but resorted to adding wagons to a conventional freight train. It was a challenging task, with traction and crew changes at border crossings and other obstacles dictating the rate of progress over a relatively short distance. The result was that the service was barely time competitive with barges, let alone lorries. A further IRIS demonstration is planned between Bologna and Padova on July 6 - 7, to show how to overcome what one participant called 'the documentation nightmare' of rail freight by providing an integrated communications service for all parties.
As open access entrepreneurs nibble away at traditional markets, the national railways are seeking to promote the success of the first Trans-European Rail Freight Freeway launched between Muizen near Antwerpen, Sibelin (Lyon) and Gioia Tauro in southern Italy in January 1998. Known as Belifret, the Terff had by mid-May been used by 2000 trains typically loading to 750 tonnes; average Belifret haul is 600 km compared with the European average of 250 km.
But one moderately successful Terff is not much of an achievement in more than two years. We predict that independents such as Switzerland's Mittelthurgau Railway (p439), HGK and TGOJ are here to stay. If they can use flexible working practices, slick operations and keen marketing to break the mould currently hindering European rail freight, they will have done a great service to the continent's industries.