INTRO: Acting on the initiative of a customer, the national railways of Germany, Austria and Italy aim to halve transit times for intermodal traffic between München and Verona. Until a few years ago swap bodies took 12 h to make the trip, but timings have been cut to 8h, with 6h in prospect. Ralf Roman Rossberg tells the story

SINCE OCTOBER 10 last year a pilot freight train named the Mezzogiorno has linked the intermodal terminals in München and Verona on an 8h schedule on Tuesdays to Fridays. Just one month after the inaugural trip, on November 9, the 1000th container was loaded at München-Riem. In contrast to the regular train which runs overnight and takes 10 to 12h, the Mezzogiorno departs at noon and arrives the same evening.

Right from the start, the pilot train has been almost fully booked. Since its launch, intermodal tonnage on the route has risen from 12000 tonnes a week to around 18000 tonnes.

Looking at the European north-south corridor between Scandinavia and Italy, the Brenner pass through the Alps lies centrally between the Gotthard and the Semmering. Highest point on the route is 1370m above sea level. Until a few years ago the Brenner main line, built in 1867, had seen practically no changes, but four new tunnels have recently been cut to ease gradients and curves (Table I).

In contrast, lorries have been able to use a four-lane motorway built to high standards in 1974, and the trip by road usually takes about 10h, although longer during peak holiday periods. This timing could not be approached by rail, at least until a customer, one Karl Fischer, who was a forwarder in Hemhof near Rosenheim, asked ’why ever not?’.

At first sight, Fischer’s enthusiasm for the competing mode is hard to understand. But he explains that ’we recognised the problem of constantly increasing road traffic a long time ago, and 10 years ago we switched part of our business to intermodal rail services. In time, the road journey would simply take too long.’

Project launch

Fischer decided to take the initiative, and set out to see how rail journey times could be cut, which would help to attract more business and make the rail service more economic. So was launched the MUCVR6 project: München - Verona in 6h.

Using the Logistics Centre at Prien am Chiemsee as his headquarters, Fischer took over as Project Manager. Other partners in the venture were the University of Applied Sciences in Rosenheim, the Fraunhofer Institute for Materials Flow & Logistics in Prien, Fischer’s own company, Simssee Transport, DB Cargo, Austrian Federal Railways, Italian State Railways, and the intermodal organisations Kombiverkehr, Ökombi and Cemat.

Fischer had made a trip on a freight train over the Brenner route, and the experience convinced him of the need to inject some dynamism into the service. He had found that a considerable amount of time was spent waiting in sidings rather than on the move. This was quickly proven by fitting transponders on the swap bodies. It was at once obvious where they were and whether or not they were at a standstill.

The railways expressed a willingness to co-operate. The München - Verona journey was carefully analysed and Rosenheim university identified 623 separate processes. The analysis revealed that to achieve the target 6h timing, including loading and unloading in the terminals, three actions were needed. First, it was possible to save a considerable amount of time simply by changing old habits and working methods. The other two steps required medium and long term investment measures, including improvements to the infrastructure.

As predicted, it proved possible to cut timings for the Mezzogiorno just by eliminating out-of-date practices, reducing the journey to 8h. Given that three railways were involved, this was a considerable achievement. The railways soon agreed to set up a joint company so that customers had a single point of contact.

Further developments are in the pipeline. This summer should see a new open access operator launch an intermodal service via the Brenner route with its own trains and crews. Rail Traction Company is a joint venture of Fercam, SAE and the Brenner motorway company.

Faced with the threat of competition, DB Cargo, ÖBB and FS took some of the initiative. The pilot train allowed 1100 lorry trips a month to be switched from road to rail, according to DB Cargo project manager Klaus Schymke. The railways see potential to grow this by 60%, equivalent to a further 6000 lorry trips a month. They soon appointed Kombiverkehr in Germany and Cemat in Italy to sell the space and to take the commercial risk, although in fact, use of the service depends mainly on punctuality, reliability, speed and price, factors entirely under the railways’ control.

Forwarders complain that rail is around 15% more expensive than road, but Schymke sees this as an attempt to force rail freight rates down. His point of view was attacked in November by Bavarian Transport Minister Otto Wiesheu who noted that ’if we succeed in halving the trip time from 12 to 6h, the railway can use its equipment, and its staff, twice as effectively. That alone should cut costs so that rail service is fully competitive.’

Infrastructure changes

Bavaria is now committed to achieve the 6h target. This entails rectifying a problem with the layout of München-Riem marshalling yard. When the yard was built in 1992, there was no provision for direct access from the south, forcing a locomotive change in München Ost station for all trains bound to or from Italy. Building a 500 m curve to the München - Rosenheim line, known as the Truderinger chord, will put this right and gain half an hour at a stroke.

By switching use of the four tracks between Riem and Ost, freight will not conflict with S-Bahn services, achieving further benefits.

More improvements are in the pipeline by installing signalling to allow bi-directional running on the 5·9 km between Großkarolinenfeld and Rosenheim. This will form part of a resignalling programme which will see computer-based interlockings installed at Rosenheim.

There is a serious bottleneck between München and Rosenheim as this is used by trains to and from Salzburg and Wien, as well as those heading to and from Innsbruck, the Brenner and Verona. For years there have been plans to upgrade and electrify the Mühldorf - Freilassing line, and the scheme was included in the 1993 Federal Transport Plan as an ’urgent project’. However, it was never funded because at the critical moment freight traffic fell on the Brenner route. But Wiesheu has since obtained the agreement of DB Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn, and completion of this scheme will ease congestion on the München - Rosenheim route, bringing better reliability, punctuality and ultimately shorter trip times.

In Austria, a programme of upgrading work has concentrated on the Inn valley line, especially between W