Sir - New Opera (RG 3.05 p115) is a travesty. The EC is paying the European rail freight industry for things it should be recognising and doing itself.

For too long rail has taken a ’take it or leave it’ position, despite the rising capabilities of the road sector. Operations and commercial models are no longer relevant, but rail has failed to adapt.

The imperviousness of the national freight operators to market and revenue loss is unlikely to be resolved by drawing lines on maps for new infrastructure. A more logical place to start is wringing more out of the asset base, cutting costs, increasing productivity and recognising that the market for the orthodox service model is evaporating. Until rail can match the routine reliability, flexibility and commercial competence of road hauliers, New Opera may be playing to an empty house.

There has been an abject failure by the rail industry to recognise how expectations are being driven by customers who can get road vehicles into play in a fraction of the time the rail industry requires, without the expense of such money pits as ERTMS. Trading and fixing paths, timings, resources and charges within 2h of an enquiry is essential to match the responsiveness of the truckers. Other transport industries operate within this time frame, so why not rail?

Locking onto ’innovative’ long-haul double-stack container trains as an option exposes the bankruptcy of thinking. Impressive though such technologies might appear, in the commercial realities of intra-Europe operations, assembly and breakdown at the hubs would just reinforce weaknesses.

Short, self-propelled trains able to move rapidly across networks and borders are more likely to win back traffic than grandiose infrastructure. They would operate at passenger speeds, mixing formations in response to traffic and operational positions. Costs and levels of productivity not attained by orthodox methods could extend the commercial reach of rail into traffic where it cannot now participate. The lower cost of ownership and operation could potentially induce many more operators including road interests, into the market, extending the reach of rail into intermodal, logistics and commodity flows which now have little option other than road.

The key is to think like truckers, emulating them in the railway environment to regain profitable traffic, and break the complacency that typifies much of the rail freight sector. Rail freight needs to challenge from within ideas taken as a given, and identify where it is failing to meet users’ expectations. Those presiding over the death throes of the industry need to act before the fat lady sings and brings down the final curtain.

Phil Mortimer

TruckTrain Developments Ltd, UK