While lorries carrying 15 million tonnes of freight used the Channel Tunnel in 2002, through trains carried barely a tenth of that. Richard Hope talked to Bill Dix, the executive charged with expanding rail freight to levels matching those between other EU countries

EUROTUNNEL has a problem. Just three years from now, the Minimum Usage Charge agreed in 1986 will end. The MUC meant that British Rail and SNCF guaranteed ET's income from rail passengers and freight at a level currently around £217m/year. Neither is anywhere near the levels for 2006 anticipated when the MUC was set in 1986. Based on current levels, ET could expect to see its operating revenue slashed by around £65m, so the company intends to increase rail freight dramatically by going into business itself as an open access operator.

The man charged with effecting this transformation is Bill Dix, who was appointed Managing Director, Eurotunnel Freight Solutions, in June 2003. Dix has managed for the past eight years ET's principal source of revenue (58% in 2002): carrying cars and coaches as well as lorries on the shuttle trains that circulate between terminals near Calais and Folkestone.

The addition of international rail freight to Dix's commercial responsibilities is a major challenge, given the sector's poor performance. But it is a measure of the importance attached to the company's new strategy of expanding rail freight by Richard Shirrefs, who was appointed Chief Executive of Eurotunnel in December 2001. Speaking at ET's Folkestone terminal on September 3, Shirrefs highlighted rail's dismally low market share: 1·5 million tonnes/year (4%) out of 37 million tonnes crossing the Straits of Dover by the Tunnel or Ro-Ro ferries (Fig 1).

Although illegal immigrants flooding SNCF's yard at Fréthun severely disrupted services bound for the UK during 2001-02 (RG 1.02 p16), traffic had already fallen from a peak of 3·14 million tonnes due to operating delays such as strikes, especially in France.

Shirrefs outlined 'several ways of going after rail freight. One is, somebody has to tackle the problem of getting rail freight through France. That's traction. Traction through France is not particularly reliable - I'm being quite conservative in my use of words. Somebody has to go and fix that problem, and if it has to be us then we will do that.

'We also can use our focus on quality and our knowledge about being a national railway to de-bottleneck the quality problem', he added. 'And the third thing is that we will almost certainly - in fact certainly - seek to provide some key infrastructure.' Shirrefs explained that 'we need a rail terminal capable of taking European gauge rail wagons into England. Even if we can't get them up the motorway or up the railway, getting them this far is hugely important.

'Those projects are not dreams', he insisted. They are totally credible in terms of what we have to do.'

Dix accepts the challenge

ET first went public with its freight plans on April 1 when it announced an application to the French transport ministry for a train operator's licence. At that stage, a frequent intermodal service running 'non-stop' between Dourges near Lille and Daventry in the middle of England was proposed (RG.5.03 p258).

Bill Dix presented a rather different vision to the Rail Freight 2003 conference in London on June 4. It included a rail freight terminal 'in Folkestone' served by trains running direct from up to 11 countries carrying 'high cube and piggyback' traffic. Unlike Dourges - Daventry, which is restricted to the W9 loading gauge between Folkestone and London, the new Folkestone terminal would accept all wagons capable of reaching Fréthun.

Asked about the licence application during an interview on September 25, Dix confirmed that 'we have submitted every single bit of paper you could think of.' The only issue still being debated within ET was whether the route specified 'should be for Dourges - Daventry or another route.' This is not a major issue, because an operating licence issued in Paris entitles ET to run trains in any EU country. Dix explained that 'as far as Dourges - Daventry is concerned, that is one of the options that we have, almost certainly with a partner which is likely to be a major continental intermodal company.' Meanwhile, his team is working in parallel on several fronts.

'The first is for ET to become a traction operator, and that's what we need the licence for', Dix explains. 'The second one is the Folkestone terminal (panel p726). The third is to encourage customers to consider rail freight to the UK - the push from the top. Then I have two teams, one on the continent and one in the UK, who are dealing with the intermodal operators to make sure that whatever they need is facilitated - they are the people, if you like, who will actually be selling the traction product.'

Hook and pull

The word 'traction' as used by both Shirrefs and Dix requires some explanation. Dix says that ET intends to set up a 'traction company' that will 'go out and lease locomotives and recruit and train drivers' as well as 'working with the major intermodal operators and customers to make sure all this is facilitated.' In other words, ET's traction company will use its operator's licence to haul wagons owned or hired by companies already in that business.

'We know what locomotives we want, we know how to get them and we have an option on that at the moment', Dix reveals. Although he declines to name the potential supplier, an order should be announced soon because 'we have to get traction organised during 2004, there's absolutely no question about it, and the sooner the better. People are sceptical, and the only time they will really believe that Eurotunnel can and will do what we've been saying is when that first train runs with Eurotunnel traction to Calais-Fréthun.'

But why not to Folkestone, if not Daventry? 'Because at the moment the likelihood is that the locos will not be Tunnel-compatible. We will still have to bring the train through the Tunnel, and then from Dollands Moor it will go wherever it goes to. That situation, at least for the moment, is likely to be the case.'

So where will these ET locos arriving at Fréthun start from? Dix says 'we are not looking to operate more than the traction company requires us to operate, which is relatively short distances - these are not thousands of kilometres across many countries.'

What about the trains from 11 countries, then? 'Initially, we want to keep it as simple as possible because, frankly, if we make it too complicated we will fall over ourselves and we will not be able to do the job. But our vision is that two or three drivers should drive the train from Milano to Manchester. It's the same as truck driving: the same guys drive all the way there and all the way back.'

Are you thinking about sleeper cabs? 'Yes we are. Trains should not stop at borders. The concept is that you have to treat it like a truck.' To do this, Dix says 'we've got to work with all the major train companies - it's SNCF, SNCB, DB, SBB; the private operators, the rail4chems - all of those we'll be asking at certain times and in certain places to work alongside us.'

But rather than trying to sleep on a locomotive, Dix says 'a simple solution is actually to take a container and fit it out. The design I've got has two bathrooms and two bunks, with an operator's room. But if you put it on a flatbed it bumps up and down a bit, and we haven't solved that particular problem yet.'

Marketing and pricing

Having a dedicated crew and locomotive could aid reliability, but marketing and charges still have to be right. What did Dix feel had gone wrong with the original set-up?

'I think the structure of the cross-Channel rail freight industry started going a little wrong when the government had to give its role to somebody else in the UK', Dix replies. 'The way it was done certainly wasn't the best way of encouraging rail freight across the Channel, because there was no clear basis for establishing marketing and sales.'

In SNCF and English Welsh & Scottish Railway 'you've got two partners who were not heavily involved in international rail freight', Dix believes. 'There was no marketing stimulus behind the whole concept of sending rail freight through the Tunnel. So then other issues came along such as illegal immigrants, and frankly, it got put in the "too hard" box by everybody.'

So long as the Minimum Usage Charge applied and rates per tonne were set by the RUC, ET had no incentive to reduce its charges for using the Tunnel. Dix is quite clear: 'there is only one price that you can charge for any particular service, which is the market price. If you charge above it you don't get any business. So we have to find a mechanism that is consistent with European law because we are an infrastructure operator, and it must be as consistent as it can be with the RUC.

'We are preparing a Network Statement within which there is a pricing element. We are doing a lot of work now to try and ensure that we have a pricing mechanism which will allow us to secure business at a market price. How we do that is still in discussion.'

A related issue is the allocation of paths through the Tunnel, 50% of which belong to the railways under the RUC. But ET still has spare paths in its own portfolio 'that we can sell to a third party operator, which doesn't have to come within the RUC', Dix points out.'

As to marketing, Dix notes that 'we have successfully marketed getting freight across the Channel for the last 10 years. ET has about 120 sales executives in 28 countries who at the moment are selling truck shuttle freight', and although no decision has been taken as yet, they could also 'assist in selling boxed freight.' There is a delicate balance to be struck here, since road haulage companies using ET's shuttle are obviously in competition with the railways.

Financial and managerial resources must also be considered. 'One thing that we have to recognise is that there are some very good operators of rail freight on the continent, and in the UK, who are running trains quite efficiently.' Dix is clear that 'we don't want to set up our own trains with our own resources all over the place competing against our own customers - that's not our objective.'

Penetrating the UK

One reason why the focus switched from Daventry to creating a rail freight terminal at Folkestone last summer was a realisation that the need to use wagons built to the highly restrictive British loading gauge was a serious disincentive to using rail for international freight.

ET is co-operating with the Port of Dover in funding a survey of routes to London to see whether extra height can be secured at reasonable cost 'from W9 to something more than W10', according to Dix. But it is not simply a question of height. British station platforms cut deeply into all the UIC gauges.

Hence Dix says ET is having 'animated discussions' with Network Rail as operator of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the first section of which opened on September 28. This is a classic 300 km/h TGV line, but Parliament insisted that it should be capable of taking freight.

'One problem is that as things stand the only place we can deliver the boxes is St Pancras station, which may not be the most popular thing to do! We're trying to find an alternative in the Barking area, but although there is a lot of enthusiasm, there appears to be no money.'

The animation stems in particular from the prospect of excessive rail wear in curves due to excess cant if 120 km/h freight trains use the line, while timetabling is problematical during the operating day. Hence Dix says 'we are interested in Mega 3 or Mega 2 [wagons] which are cleared for 140 km/h running.'

He thinks 140 km/h would also be helpful in the Tunnel because 'the one problem Eurotunnel has with all these freight trains is that at the moment they are 120 km/h. Really, we desperately need to get them to 140 km/h to maximise the efficiency of the Tunnel.'

'Because the Tunnel is straight, we want to work with manufacturers of the rolling stock to see if it is possible, given braking requirements and so forth, to actually run 120 km/h wagons at 140 km/h just through the Tunnel. We're not dependent upon it, but it would certainly be helpful.'

Given the formidable obstacles to operating trains across Europe efficiently, one question that remains is whether ET has the political clout at government level to make it work? Dix concedes that 'up to about two years ago we were less politically mature than we need to be to do this job. Richard Shirrefs has spent a considerable amount of his time and effort in establishing political contacts on both sides of the Channel so that we are able to do what we say we are going to do.

'It is an enormous job that we are trying to achieve here, and while we will not do it all by ourselves, certainly as far as the political element is concerned we have to do that by ourselves. So the answer is: we have significantly more political clout than we did two years ago, no doubt about that at all.

'Richard has been the architect of this project, and I've got some really good people working on it. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm for it within the company - not in panic mode but "let's just get this thing done!"'

  • CAPTION: An international container train emerges from the French portal behind a pair of Class 92s - the only locos currently permitted to haul freight trains through the Channel Tunnel

The Folkestone Intermodal Terminal

The current timetable would see construction start on an intermodal and general freight terminal alongside the shuttle platforms at the Cheriton site early in 2004, with completion a year later.

The original plans for Cheriton provided for 16 shuttle loading platforms, of which only 10 have been built. The new rail freight terminal will occupy the space allocated to shuttle platforms 11 to 16. Plans show three tracks running through the terminal, plus headshunts at both ends.

Terminal tracks cannot be wired because boxes and trailers have to be lifted on and off. Freight trains arriving from France will therefore run through a vacant shuttle platform into the east headshunt, which extends almost to the Tunnel portal. They will then be drawn back into the terminal by a diesel shunter, which can use the west headshunt to position different sections of the train within range of a gantry crane. Reach stackers will also be available, as well as tugs to move trailers.

The unloading and loading area extends for 820m between overbridge No 2 and the grid substation. The width available for the terminal varies from about 60 to 90m, much of it allocated for short term storage of containers and swap bodies. In addition, a park for piggyback trailers will be created outside the loading area between overbridges 1 and 2, and Dix says there will be a need for a container stacking area away from the Cheriton site.

The initial phase costing 'single figure úm' will probably have one or two loading tracks, but when fully developed the terminal will handle up to 10 trains/day in each direction.

Dix says 'initial interest is actually in piggyback. There is one very large piggyback operator on the continent who is very serious about bringing in a number of trains every day, and believes there is a big enough market for that.' Another interesting market is high-cube vans bringing in white goods from Italy stacked three-high, which is impossible within the UK loading gauge.

Le plan d'Eurotunnel pour développer le transport combiné

Tandis qu'en 2002, des camions transportant 15 millions de tonnes de fret ont été acheminés par les trains navettes Eurotunnel entre les terminaux près de Calais et de Folkestone, les trains de marchandises classiques ont transporté seulement un dixième de ce tonnage. Eurotunnel s'achemine vers une chute significative de recettes à l'horizon de novembre 2006, si le tonnage ferroviaire n'augmente pas d'ici là. Le responsable chargé d'élever le fret ferroviaire entrant ou sortant du Royaume-Uni à des niveaux plus proches de ceux échangés entre les autres pays de l'Union Européenne, explique comment la compagnie atteindra cet objectif en devenant un opérateur ferroviaire dans le cadre du libre accès

Eurotunnels Pläne zur Ausweitung des Kombinierten Güterverkehrs

Während im Jahre 2002 LKWs 15 Millionen Tonnen Güter auf Eurotunnel-Shuttlezügen zwischen den Terminals bei Calais und Folkestone bef?€?rderten, transportierten durchgehende Güterzüge nur einen Zehntel dieser Tonnage. Eurotunnel erwartet einen spürbaren Einnahmenrückgang ab November 2006, wenn die Gütertonnagen bis dann nicht wesentlich gesteigert werden k?€?nnen. Der Verantwortliche für die Steigerung des Bahngüterverkehrs von und nach Grossbritannien auf ein Niveau, welches demjenigen zwischen anderen EU-Ländern n&her kommt erklärt wie die Unternehmung, indem sie zu einem Open Access-Betreiber wird, diese Ziele erreichen will

La estrategia de Eurotunnel para potenciar el transporte combinado

Mientras que los trenes lanzadera de Eurotunel trasladaron camiones que transportaban 15 millones de toneladas entre las terminales cerca de Calais y Folkestone en 2002, los trenes de mercancías convenciales sólo transportaron una décima parte de dicho tonelaje. Eurotunnel hace frente a una importante caída en los ingresos desde noviembre de 2006 si el tonelaje de los ferrocarriles no se incrementa sustancialmente desde entonces. El gerente encargado de fomentar el tr? fico de cargas internacional con el Reino Unido a niveles mucho m? s cercanos a aquellos que se mueven entre otros países de la UE explica cómo la empresa lograr? dicho objetivo, convirtiéndose en un operador de trenes de libre acceso