INTRO: Murray Hughes reports from the rail freight seminar organised by the International Railway Congress Association in the Slovenian capital on May 27-29

Strategic Plan promises a high return

SLOVENIAN Railways announced at the IRCA seminar details of its long-term strategic plan that runs to 2010. This envisages that freight traffic volume will rise by 82% from a base level of 14·9 million tonnes in 2001 to reach 27 million tonnes a year by 2010.

Pasenger traffic is forecast to rise by 24% from 14·5 million passengers in 2001 to 18 million a year in 2010. Total revenue is expected to increase by 35% over the same period to reach 81·2bn tolars, with the share of labour costs falling from 63% to 47%. Revenue from fares and freight tariffs is expected to rise from 35·9 billion tolars in 2003 to 52·9 billion by 2010, while grants and subsidy for ’public economic services’ will remain stable at around 27bn to 30bn tolars annually.

In traffic terms, SZ reported that it was on target so far, with freight tonnes reaching 17·3 million in 2003. Market share of all freight traffic was a creditable 41%.

SZ has made strenuous efforts to develop the freight business, launching a number of block trains with partners in neighbouring countries. These include a München - Ljubljana service launched with four trains a day that now justifies seven, and the plan is to increase this to 12 trains a day by the end of 2005. A Ljubljana - Bologna block train began running in February, and a Ljubljana - Milano train was due to start in June. Plans envisage similar services to Miskolc and Zahon in Hungary in the near future, and later to Budapest and Bratislava.

One of the main obstacles to progress is the single track over the 153 km from Koper to Ljubljana. According to Slovenian Transport Minister Dr Marko Pavliha, who chaired the ECMT meeting in Ljubljana that preceded the IRCA seminar, a second track is due to be completed to eliminate the bottleneck by 2012.

CAPTION: ABOVE: Slovenian Railways’ freight traffic has risen by 17% in the last two years

LEFT: Transport Minister Dr Marko Pavliha

New Opera study looks at dedicated freight network

PLANS are being drawn up to examine the feasibility of a dedicated main line freight network across Europe. Known as the New Opera project, the study is expected to take three years and be worth €3m to €4m.

According to Jean-Arnold Vinois, Head of Unit at DG TREN at the European Commission, funding will be provided by the Sixth Framework Programme for research in the European Union. Negotiations are currently in hand with two consortia bidding for the work, and a contract is expected to be signed in September or October. One group includes the Community of European Railways and the other includes the European Rail Infrastructure Managers’ Association. The project is expected to culminate in the presentation of a business case for the project.

Vinois said on May 28 at the IRCA freight seminar that the project had been proposed by a ’leader’s club’ of freight and logistics companies, with shippers, train operators and infrastructure companies all involved.

Confessions from a furniture mover

Christer Beijbom, formerly Managing Director of Ikea Rail, highlighted the good and bad from the company’s short-lived sally into the rail sector (RG 5.02 p268).

Ikea ventured into the market believing rail transport could be made cheaper than road, that high-quality service standards were achievable, and that use of rail would bring environmental benefits. Beijbom brought the rail expertise, having at one time been head of Swedish State Railways’ freight business. Key to the project, he said, was having door-to-door control, hence the decision to obtain its own operating licence for the 1044 km haul between Ålmhult in Sweden and Duisburg in Germany.

Looking back, Beijbom felt that co-operation with the three infrastructure managers had been good - he was especially pleased with their willingness to strive for a better timetable. Also very positive was control of costs, and Beijbom believed that it would be possible to cut these by 30% to 40% compared with the price of services run by the national railways. The Ikea train made full use of the rolling stock with rapid turnrounds, and ’there were many new possibilities to cut costs further’.

On the negative side, Beijbom cited ’the complexity of the safety cases we were forced to have in each country’. Different infrastructure meant different documentation, while different laws and languages exacerbated the difficulties. He recommended that the railways ’try to use English as the railway language’, as this would simplify contracts and other documentation.

Among Ikea Rail’s biggest problems was the cost of road haulage at the start and end of each trip, but ensuring that the train was full also proved to be a major headache. Ikea had big volumes, ’but we could not fill the train in both directions, so we tried to sell space on the train’, said Beijbom. An 85% payload was needed for break-even, which would have made the train competitive with road. By cutting costs, Ikea hoped to achieve 75%, but in the end forwarders opted for cheaper road transport.

Infrastructure access was Ikea Rail’s biggest single cost, the major element being charges for crossing the Størebaelt and the Øresund. With signalling and electrification systems interfaces on the Øresund, and no yard available to change locos, Ikea was obliged to use ’very expensive electric locos’, although in practice the company used diesel locos as a temporary fix that lasted until it left the business in January this year.

In fact, Ikea Rail had been negotiating with Bombardier for a five-year lease of dual-system locos, but the company was ultimately unable to make the long-term commitment as ’the risks were too high’.

Beijbom, who now advises private operators as an independent consultant, said ’we showed it was possible to create a high-quality train that ran 90% on time and averaged 70 km/h.’ In the end, although Ikea Rail pulled out (RG 12.03 p755), the train continued to run and the operation was due to be taken over by Railion last month.