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High speed lines will drive forward Refer's long-term strategy

01 Feb 2006

Portuguese infrastructure authority Refer has launched a comprehensive review of rail's role in the national economy. This will guide development of the conventional network and the construction of standard gauge high speed lines

THE ANNOUNCEMENT on December 13 of government approval for two high speed lines will have a significant impact on the Portuguese infrastructure manager Refer. As well as revising its plans for upgrading the broad gauge network, Refer must now develop a strategy for integration with the new standard-gauge lines.

At the same time, Refer is focusing on its core role of operating, maintaining and renewing the network, continuing its policy of modernising working practices and adopting new technology to reduce costs.

Refer's board is also responsible for the high speed line project company RAVE, and is thus in a good position to develop a co-ordinated response to the government's recent request for a strategic review of national rail policy.

Intended to define the role of rail in social and economic development, and in responding to growing demands for mobility, the medium to long-term strategic plan must embrace both public service requirements and the need to support business activities, in conjunction with other modes. The plan will also cover the integration of the conventional network and high speed lines, addressing issues such as interoperability and a phased conversion of existing lines to standard gauge.

According to Refer's Chairman Luis Filipe Pardal, work on the plan is expected to get underway shortly. He says it will define the priorities for future investment and outline an investment programme for the next 15 to 20 years.

High speed policy change

Heavily influenced by Spanish progress with developing a standard gauge high speed network, the Portuguese decision to join the high speed club reverses a policy decision taken in 1996.

Faced at the time by a budget crisis, the government felt that the Portuguese economy could not justify construction of a high speed line between Lisboa and Porto. Instead, it opted to invest in modernisation of the existing Linha do Norte, with several major realignments to raise line speeds accompanied by the introduction of 220 km/h tilting trains.

According to former CP President Chrisóstomo Teixeira, now an adviser to the Ministry of Transport, 'the modernisation of the old line was not the solution. The impact on the operator was very negative, and at the end of the day we will not have the quality of service that the market demands'.

The government believed the upgrading would only require renewal of the track, signalling and overhead line equipment, but Teixeira says Refer rapidly discovered that the line was in worse condition than anticipated. Poor drainage along much of the route meant that the formation had to be dug out completely and the whole substructure replaced.

Lengthy sections of single-line working and slow running extended the journey time by more than 1h, and at one stage delays were averaging more than 45 min per train on top of the extended schedules. Passengers deserted the trains in droves, and CP's revenues collapsed. Now that the biggest projects have been completed, CP has been able to cut the best Lisboa - Porto time to under 3h and the traffic has started to return.

In 2004, the Portuguese rail network handled 153 million passenger-journeys and 9·5 million tonnes of freight, up from 151 million and 8·7 million tonnes in the previous year.

But Teixeira says there is still one fundamental problem - the line is not in the right place. Over recent years Portugal's population has gradually shifted closer to the coast, turning the hilly interior into an under-populated backwater. Hence the belated decision to develop a new high speed corridor.

Plans for the high speed network are being drawn up by RAVE, in conjunction with Spanish representatives through a bilateral working group and the AVEP GEIE formed by the two countries. Refer is also closely involved in planning for integration with the existing network. Construction of the first two lines is expected to get underway in 2008, at a total cost of about €7·7bn (below).

Ongoing projects

Despite the decision to build the Lisboa - Porto high speed line, renewal of the Linha do Norte remains Refer's biggest current project. Some specifications are expected to be modified in the light of the decision; for example, there will be less emphasis on raising the line speed. Pardal says this may reduce the amount of realignment work to be undertaken on some sections, but will not affect the planned improvements to operational safety and running conditions.

Now handling an average of 680 trains a day, the Linha do Norte will remain the primary axis of the Portuguese rail network for at least the next decade. Even in the longer term, it will continue to provide the main connection to the busy Beira Alta and Beira Baixa east-west lines. With around 80% of freight traffic currently moving over the corridor, Pardal says 'it is essential to keep the Linha do Norte functioning properly as a key element in this logistics chain'.

After the long-distance inter-city services are switched to the north-south high speed line in 2015, the Linha do Norte will be dominated by suburban, regional and freight services, although it will continue to carry some inter-city services to and from the transverse corridors.

Work is also underway on the electrification of the Covilhã - Guarda section of the Beira Baixa route, which will see the modernisation of the principal corridor to the Spanish border completed by 2007. Other major projects include development of a new electrified freight corridor between the port of Sines and the Spanish border, which is due to be finished in 2010, and upgrading of the important suburban route from Lisboa to Cascais; this will be completed by 2012.

Financing and access charges

Refer receives direct state funding for major investment projects, including both renewals and new construction. Many projects are also supported by the EU Cohesion and Regional Development funds. Any shortfalls are covered by debt financing, much of which comes from the European Investment Bank, backed by explicit state guarantees.

Refer's operating and maintenance costs are supposed to be covered by track access charges, which are set using a regulatory framework in line with EU directives. Although the framework is designed to move progressively towards full cost recovery, only 30% of Refer's operating costs were met from track access charges in 2004. A further 11% was funded by direct grant from the government. Around 3% of Refer's 2004 revenue came from non-core activities including real estate management. Pardal explains that shortfalls between operating costs and revenues, including operating subsidies, are covered by debt.

The methodology for setting the access charges is laid down by the Instituto Nacional do Transporte Ferrovi? rio, the independent regulatory body established in 1998. As well as determining the rules, INTF must also approve the actual charges once they have been calculated.

According to Teixeira, the level of access charges was a thorny issue in the early days following the 1997 restructuring. With large numbers of manually-worked level crossings, mechanical interlockings and hand-worked points, Refer inherited a very inefficient network with high operating costs. There were similar problems with manual maintenance methods. Refer's initial attempt to achieve full cost recovery resulted in access charges so high that CP could not afford to pay them.

As both bodies remain state-owned, the dispute effectively ranged around whether the government should subsidise the infrastructure manager or train operator. After an uncomfortable period, the two organisations agreed to compromise.

INTF is also responsible for licensing and certification of train operators wishing to use the Portuguese network. At present CP's only rival is Fertagus, which holds the concession to run suburban services on the cross-Tagus route from Lisboa to Setúbal. Several other companies have made exploratory approaches to INTF, but as yet Refer says there are no formal applications in the pipeline.

Contract maintenance

Faced with the need to improve the efficiency and quality of maintenance and reduce costs, Refer has pursued and expanded the outsourcing policy adopted by the former state railway in the mid-1980s.

Putting infrastructure maintenance out to contract has helped to drive mechanisation and the replacement of older equipment. Better efficiency has seen staff numbers fall, helped by retirement and a voluntary redundancy programme. At the same time, Refer has put more emphasis on training to improve the skills of its remaining staff.

Refer believes that contractors are better placed to maintain the new technology now being introduced, and Pardal highlights signalling and communications, power supply systems and level crossing automation as areas where modernisation has introduced a higher level of complexity. The maintenance of new signalling, train radio and the Convel automatic train protection system, has been delegated to the manufacturers through integrated supply and maintain contracts.

More recently, Refer has developed and introduced a new model contract for integrated infrastructure maintenance in specific geographical areas, which is expected to provide greater uniformity in procedures and maintenance methods between the various regions. The new model will also reduce the large number of existing contracts that occupy considerable internal management resources.

The first two model contracts have been awarded for ZOC Lisboa, covering the capital's metropolitan area and ZOC Sul for the routes between Lisboa and the Algarve. The Refer board has just started a rigorous evaluation of the results being obtained before deciding whether to introduce similar contracts elsewhere.

Gauge conversion

The decision to build the high speed network to 1435mm gauge brings the question of gauge conversion to Portugal for the first time. Whilst admitting that 'a network with two different gauges does not facilitate optimisation at the operational level', Refer is convinced that 'it will be possible to minimise the impacts' if work starts immediately on planning the development of each project. 'It is a matter to which we pay the utmost attention', says Pardal, adding that 'some resolutions will be proposed' in the near future.

The government has already recognised the issue, and when the new lines were approved Transport Minister M? rio Lino announced that Refer had been commissioned to prepare urgently 'a global plan for the progressive migration of the railway network from the Iberian gauge to the European one.'

As a first step, the new freight line from Sines towards the Spanish border is being built using gauge-convertible sleepers. The electrified route is expected to open in 2010 as a broad gauge line, but will be converted later.

  • CAPTION: An Alfa Pendular service between Lisboa and Porto eases past reconstruction work on the Linha do Norte
  • CAPTION: Upgrading work on the approach to Lisboa includes reconstruction of the station at Castanheira do Ribatejo to accommodate the capital's expanding suburban services
  • CAPTION: Between Setil and Entroncamento, a section of route will be realigned onto this new elevated structure to ease the present curves and eliminate level crossings
  • CAPTION: One of the biggest reconstruction projects currently underway on the Linha do Norte covers the section between 50 and 55 km north of Lisboa
  • CAPTION: New trackwork takes shape on a replacement bridge at Simões, 181 km north of Lisboa

 

First two routes take shape

OF THE TWO committed routes in Portugal's emerging high speed programme, the Lisboa - Madrid corridor is due to be completed first. This reflects an agreement with the Spanish government signed at Évora in November 2005 which set a target journey time of 2h 45min between the two capitals, and confirmed that the 350 km/h route would be designed for mixed traffic.

Priced at €2·4bn, the 207 km east-west line is expected to open in 2013. As well as its primary role of improving links from Portugal to the rest of Europe, RAVE believes that it will improve the economic competitiveness of the central and southern parts of the country.

Key to the shorter journey times will be a new bridge across the Tagus, linking Chelas with Barreiro on the south bank. This was initially designed as a double-deck structure carrying two tracks on each deck. RAVE is now looking at the scope for providing road capacity. The Tagus bridge would also be designed for mixed rail traffic, unlike the existing April 25 bridge which is prohibited to freight trains.

From Barreiro, the high speed line would parallel Refer's existing route through Pinhal Novo and then head east to Évora before turning northeast to reach the existing border crossing at Elvas/Badajoz. RAVE has committed to building stations at Lisboa, Évora and Elvas.

There are still several key decisions to be taken about the alignment of the 313 km north-south line between Lisboa and Porto. These include the location of the main station in the capital and the route of the final approach to the city. One option is to follow the existing line along the north bank of the Tagus, and the other is to run via the south bank to a junction with the Madrid line east of Barrieiro.

After serving the capital's planned international airport at Ota, the high speed line will run closer to the coast than the existing Linha do Norte, running via Leiria to Coimbra. From here it will parallel the existing route through Aveiro to Porto. RAVE is currently studying whether to include junctions so that trains can use the existing stations at Coimbra and Aveiro or to build new facilities on the high speed line itself, further from the city centres.

Similarly, the location for the new central station in Porto has yet to be decided. The line will continue north of Porto to terminate at Francisco S? Carneiro airport.

Scheduled to open in 2015, the €4·7bn north-south line is expected to cut the journey time between Lisboa and Porto from the present best of 2h 50min to 1h 15min.

Under the Évora agreement, the Portuguese have also committed to develop further high speed connections with Spain in the longer term. These include a line north from Porto to Vigo, a second east-west link between Aveiro and Salamanca, and a southern branch from Évora to Faro and Huelva.