INTRO: An innovative international service has been operating between Amsterdam and Milano for almost a year, and further routes are under discussion. Richard Hope finds that Netherlands Railways sees considerable potential for expansion

COMBINING time-sensitive freight with overnight sleeper trains has proved to be a commercially successful formula between Amsterdam and Milano after OverNight Express was launched on May 28 2000.

Operating six nights a week in both directions, the ONE pilot project was a joint initiative by NS Internationaal and Railion Benelux. ONE manages the operation and the owning partners take the commercial risk. Outside the Netherlands, traction and train crew are hired by ONE from DB, SBB and FS.

But FS is more closely involved in the project, because the train splits at the Greco Pirelli freight terminal 20min before the passengers alight at Milano Centrale. It was here that FS halted freight services on March 5 because ONE had implemented a planned switch from pallets in closed vans to swap bodies on frame wagons. The train continued to run with passengers only, and the difficulty was soon resolved. Freight service resumed on March 26.

Meanwhile, the Dutch partners in ONE are pressing ahead with plans to expand the service, with May 2002 pencilled in as the target for the next launch. Under discussion are routes from Amsterdam to southern Germany (München), southern France, Spain, and Sweden. There is also talk of an Austrian destination, possibly Innsbruck. The final choice will depend on a successful marriage of freight and passenger markets around the year.

Successful marriage

NS Internationaal is responsible within NS Reizigers (Passengers) for international services, and there was concern about the future of overnight trains. On the freight side, a group of traders based around Schiphol airport and the major flower auction at nearby Aalsmeer were increasingly worried about road congestion delaying their high-value but perishable goods. European Food & Flower Overland Road & Rail Transport wanted a mode that was cheaper than air, but faster and more reliable than road.

There are well-established intermodal train services sponsored by major shipping companies already in operation between Rotterdam and northern Italy. These typically take 24h over the road, but an overnight delay before the unloading of a train which arrives in the evening can spin this out to 36 h. This was not fast enough for Efforrt’s members. but it was clear that neither their freight nor the overnight passenger business could support on its own a dedicated 160 km/h train taking 14h.

So the revival of an old idea was born. A mixed train of sleepers, couchettes and seats would be operated along with a freight section. Because it was carrying passengers, a fast schedule with minimal frontier delays was assured along with the same reliability achieved by international expresses on a routine basis.

New Type W1ab28 sleepers were hired from Wagons-Lits, providing a very high standard of comfort, and WL staffs the train. There is also a buffet car, couchettes and first class compartment stock for seated passengers, with all space fully reserved at special prices.

The first OverNight Express was launched using a fleet of 12 former DB postal vans, also designed for 200 km/h. These were converted by Nedtrain with roller shutter doors for loading pallets with fork-lift trucks, and the through gangways blocked off. But while there is enough temperature control from the train heating supply to eliminate frost damage to flowers, the vans are neither air-conditioned nor refrigerated.

Milano Pilot a success

Eight months later, the ’Milano Pilot’ was judged a success. Michel Jonker of NS Internationaal said he was ’really hopeful about this whole project - it certainly has market potential.’ Particularly pleasing was the extent to which business travel held up during the winter months when the leisure market is less active.

Railion and Efforrt were equally pleased. A load of five or six vans was typical, with an acceptable balance between northbound and southbound traffic. The vans were loaded at Amsterdam Westhaven freight yard and taken to Centraal Station to be coupled to the passenger cars before departure at 17.55.

After picking up passengers at Utrecht and Arnhem, the next commercial stop is at the Greco Pirelli freight terminal in Milano at 07.29 where the freight section is detached. Passengers detrain at Milano Centrale on arrival at 07.50, leaving the full business day available.

This arrangement guaranteed that there would be no delay in transferring the freight to Greco Pirelli after the passengers had departed.

The same procedure is followed in reverse on departure from Milano Centrale at 20.05, with a rather late Amsterdam arrival scheduled at 10.37. As the train has to stop anyway for loco and crew changes at the frontier stations of Emmerich, Basel Bad and Chiasso, the first and last of these will become advertised stops from the summer timetable.

Expansion in prospect

Despite the recent setback in Italy, NS Internationaal and Railion have every intention of opening up new routes. Jonker says his company is already preparing the ground work for a substantial order for new overnight rolling stock that could include up to 70 new sleepers, couchette and service cars.

As regards freight, it had always been the intention to replace the postal vans with a purpose-built fleet of 160 km/h twin-platform wagons carrying swap bodies or containers, with the option of refrigeration. Up to 10 platforms taking 45ft boxes are now available on each train, with the possibility of adding a sixth wagon to carry 12 boxes.

As there are not yet any 160 km/h container flats, ONE is currently using Sffggrrss104 wagons. These are close-coupled twins with a deck height of only 825 mm, allowing all sizes of containers to be accommodated within the route’s loading gauge. Although they have a top speed of 120 km/h, existing speed limits and the elimination of some operating stops mean the train can still meet the advertised 14 h timing. The partners are working to develop specifications for container wagons which will be suitable for 160 km/h operation.

Swap bodies are better suited than pallet vans to the needs of Efforrt members such as Jan de Ryk, a major freight forwarder specialising in air freight. A switch to the Hoofdorp freight terminal is envisaged at the Amsterdam end because the location is more convenient for shippers. But this has had to be postponed pending alterations, including the provision of sufficient track free from overhead wires to lift the swap bodies.

CAPTION: An NS Reizigers Class 17 electric loco leads the sleeping cars and ex-DB postal vans as the ONE arrives in Amsterdam from Milano

Photo: Quintus Vosman

CAPTION: ONE’s distinctive livery provides valuable publicity as the southbound train waits to leave Amsterdam Centraal

CAPTION: From March 1, ONE’s freight portion was switched from covered vans to low-height container flats, allowing the operation of refrigerated swap bodies at the cost of a reduction in the maximum speed from 160 to 120 km/h