INTRO: As Fret SNCF prepares to double its annual traffic, new electric and diesel locos will be delivered at the rate of five a month. Chris Jackson reports from Belfort

OVER THE next five years, French National Railways’ freight business is planning to invest almost Fr8bn in over 600 new locomotives. Both electric and diesel designs are on the shopping list, as Fret SNCF starts to modernise and expand its fleet for the increasingly competitive European rail freight market.

On November 28 2000, SNCF’s Deputy Director General, Freight, Francis Rol-Tanguy, and Rolling Stock Director Roland Bonnepart attended ceremonies at Belfort station to unveil one of 120 new electric locos designed specifically for freight operation. Designated Class BB427000, these form the first series build of electric locos in Alstom’s modular Prima family (p124).

Following commissioning trials, the first three pre-series BB427000s are due to enter revenue service in May. A prototype three-system loco will take to the rails by the end of this year. The remainder of the 90 dual-system and 30 three-system locos are to be delivered at a rate of five a month from the beginning of 2002. Fret SNCF has options for a further 180 Primas, but is planning to purchase up to 300 more electric locos in total for delivery in 2003-06.

Within the next few months, the business expects to place orders for 124 diesel locos to be delivered over the same timescale. There will be two types: 55 medium-power units rated at 1200 to 1800 kW, and 69 high-power locos of 2500 to 3200 kW. These will be the first new diesel locos ordered by SNCF for almost 30 years.

In addition to the new designs, Alstom is currently turning out a second series of 30 BB436000 Astrid three-system mixed traffic locos which are primarily allocated to freight operation between France and Italy.

Following the sectorisation of the national fleet, Fret SNCF currently has 1160 electric and 1050 diesel locos, including several elderly classes where the maintenance costs are rising rapidly. Average ages of the fleet are 27 years for the electrics and 34 for the diesels. By 2007 the business expects to withdraw 316 electric and 105 diesel locos, leaving a net increase of 183 units.

Matching investment

In addition to the locomotive renewal, Fret SNCF is investing in GPS location equipment, and work will start this year to equip around 80% of the loco fleet. Collecting data from a network of 28 satellites, each loco will report its position to operating control centres by GSM radio in real time. This will assist with load tracking, fault diagnosis, and the provision of train running information.

Over the next two years, the business will put into service 4000 new and refurbished wagons. Of these, around 2600 will be modernised vehicles for the steel, wood and food sectors. New stock includes 400 steel coil carriers and 1000 sliding-wall vehicles for the food and distribution business.

A pilot programme has been launched into improving wagon productivity, through the introduction of dedicated pools. Trials with a fleet of wagons for tobacco traffic produced a saving of 42 vehicles whilst improving the quality of service provided. A larger trial is to start in the first quarter of 2001 involving 6500 wagons used for steel traffic.

Tough traffic targets

After several years of decline, freight traffic in France began to turn up during 2000. In the first nine months, tonne-km reached 41·7 billion, compared to 38·9 billion for the same period in 1999, and Rol-Tanguy expected to achieve a total of 55 billion by the end of the year.

Overall, freight traffic in 2000 was around 8% up, compared to a drop of 1% in 1999, and around 5% ahead of the improvements expected in SNCF’s 2000 budget. Market share against road was also up, by 0·3%, after declining since 1997, and Rol-Tanguy said late last year that the volume of traffic was the highest since 1984.

Intermodal business, which accounts for around 26% of tonne-km, was up by over 11% in the first six months, whilst the movement of fallen timber between February and December almost doubled from 1·6 to 3 million tonnes.

Rol-Tanguy ascribes the improvements to strong economic growth in France and Europe, together with higher costs and driver shortages hitting the road transport industry. However, he is concerned that there was still a long way to go to improve the quality of the rail product.

In particular, he sees punctuality and reliability as a weak point, particularly for customers operating a just-in-time production process. Last year Deputy Director, Marketing, Jacques Lagoutte signed an agreement with the Association of Freight Transport Users (AUTF) under which Fret SNCF will pay compensation for any delivery delays attributable to the railway. This will provide a strong financial motive to drive up the quality of rail operations.

In mid-2000 Fret SNCF regional managers met to consider action plans for the 2001-02 period. The aim is to achieve 60 billion tonne-km, whilst increasing the quality of service. In the longer term, Rol-Tanguy wants to see SNCF freight traffic doubled, which he says will require a significant improvement in quality at the same time.

The acquisition of a large fleet of three-system locos confirms Fret SNCF’s intention to operate beyond its own national boundaries. By 2007 the company will have 61 new locos able to run into Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, and 29 equipped for operation in Germany.

An early opportunity for through-running will come on the heavily-graded Mont Cenis corridor between Chambéry and Torino, where SNCF and Trenitalia are working to double freight capacity ahead of the planned base tunnel. The two railways have agreed to through-working of locos, which should cut more than 1h from the frontier handover process at Modane. This will help to accommodate an expected increase from 10 million tonnes of freight in 2000 to 13 million over the next three years.

Next year is due to see the introduction of rolling motorway services over the existing line, using Lohr-built low-platform wagons to accommodate 4m high lorries. Up to 30 shuttle services will be handling 5000 lorries a day by 2005, lifting total traffic to an estimated 20 million tonnes a year.

Fret SNCF loco orders

TABLE: Class Quantity Speed Power supply Continuous rating Delivery

BB436000 60 220 km/h 1·5 kV DC / 25 kV 50Hz / 3 kV DC 6000 kW 1999-2003

BB427000 90 140 km/h 1·5 kV DC / 25 kV 50Hz 4200 kW 2001-06

BB437000 29 140 km/h 1·5 kV DC / 25 kV 50Hz / 15 kV 16 Hz 4200 kW 2004-06

BB437500 1 140 km/h 1·5 kV DC / 25 kV 50Hz / 3 kV DC 4200 kW 2006

n/a 300 n/a electric n/a 2003-06

n/a 55 140 km/h diesel (medium power) 1800 kW 2003-06

n/a 55 140 km/h diesel (high power) 3200 kW 2003-06

CAPTION: Following the handover ceremony on November 28, the second pre-series BB427000 waits to leave Belfort at the beginning of December to start commissioning trials with Fret SNCF

CAPTION: Joining the last of 60 three-system Astrid mixed-traffic locos for SNCF and export diesels on the assembly lines at Alstom’s Belfort plant are the first series-built electric locos of the company’s Prima family; Fret SNCF is buying 90 dual-system and 30 three-system units