EUROPE: Just how seriously the economic downturn is hurting Europe’s rail freight emerges from a Declaration issued at a joint CER-UIC High-Level Freight Meeting in Wien on April 24.

That the 20 or so chief executives attending the event felt the need to send out a formal cry for help tells its own story. By any measure, the figures are alarming: last December tonne-km fell by an average of 22% in Central and Eastern Europe countries compared with a year earlier, and in January the figure was 34%. For Western Europe the drop was 18% in December and 36% in January.

The Declaration called for a moratorium on energy price rises and track access charges, which CER says account for up to 30% of operating costs. It also asked the European Commission ‘to consider a moratorium of at least one year on the implementation of cost-increasing EU legislation including the European Rail Traffic Management System and the Telematic Applications for Freight TSI’. Not only that, but the Wien attendees addressed a plea to the European Railway Agency to delay implementation of a revised wagon numbering scheme due to commence in 2010, which they say will generate extra costs and require ‘accelerated adaptation of IT systems’.

CER Executive Director Johannes Ludewig insisted that ‘the railways are not asking for yet another bail-out’, but rather ‘for immediate and sustainable measures allowing the industry to restart business quicker and better once the crisis is over’.

Another threat continues to hang over rail freight. Just suppose that the European Commission were to sanction giant lorries across the EU. According to Long-Term Climate Impacts of the Introduction of Megatrucks’, a report produced for CER by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, the use of lorries up to 25·25 m long and weighing up to 60 tonnes could shift up to 30% of high-value goods and container traffic from rail to road. The report further warns that ‘on longer distances, above 1 000 km, megatrucks will replace nearly all conventional road trucks on the trans-European road network if their introduction is not regulated’, and that such vehicles would generate an additional 2 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

The message for rail freight operators is the same as ever, and we make no apology for repeating it - drive down your own costs or your competitors will put you out of business. As the downturn forces a renewed focus on costs, we can only hope that rail freight will emerge leaner and fitter from this traumatic period.