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Seeking a high speed freight market

01 Apr 2003

INTRO: The growth in premium express parcels business offers the potential for high speed trains to win traffic from air and road. But despite repeated proposals, logistical issues and the high investment required have so far conspired to prevent progress

BYLINE: Dr Eckhard Kuhla

Managing DirectorEKonsult GmbH

EVERY MORNING, a windowless TGV pulls into a platform near the Gare de Lyon in Paris, unannounced. Forklift trucks roll up to the doors, and unload pallets of parcels for transfer to a nearby distribution centre. And 450 km to the south a similar scenario is playing out in Lyon. Since 1986 the French postal TGVs have been demonstrating the practicality - if not the viability - of carrying high speed freight by rail. The postal authorities were sufficiently impressed by the original train to introduce a second diagram, but the concept has not yet been copied by anyone else. Why not?

Over the past 20 years there have been numerous studies into the potential for running freight trains at 200 km/h or more. High Speed Mix, DeuFraKo, AFTEI and the High Speed Rail Forum all looked at specific projects, but did not attempt to draw general conclusions. So in 2001 the UIC commissioned a further study to look at all aspects of high speed freight from demand up to operational issues.

The study reviewed experience in France and Germany, and attempted to draw up proposals for a 'second-generation' Freight Express (FEX) project. This must reflect the market trend for more international freight movements across European borders.

If the former national railways even looked at high speed freight opportunities at all, they did so to provide extra justification for their high speed passenger lines. Most initiatives lacked a commercial approach, or any external pressure for modal shift. Privately-promoted schemes - mostly in Germany - were led by the express parcels industry. But their proposals were stillborn because of the high investment needed and because quoted track access charges were not competitive.

The French post office was able to avoid a huge investment in trains, terminals and infrastructure by piggybacking on SNCF's then-new passenger railway. The trainset design needed only minor adaptation to carry pallets instead of passengers. And - perhaps most importantly - there was dedicated space available for rail/road transfer and distribution facilities.

Interestingly, none of the private proposals failed because of the unavailability of paths. The 'night ban' on high speed line paths because of maintenance closures could apparently be overcome by commercial and political diplomacy. But getting early morning paths in the metropolitan areas is a critical issue for 'just-in-time' deliveries, which needs to be evaluated case by case. Under EU regulations regular-interval passenger trains have priority on the conventional network, especially where there are intensive suburban services.

Assessing demand

The 'express goods' sector is the fastest growing freight market in Europe at present, increasing at between 5 and 10% a year. Table I provides a rough segmentation between the air and express sectors.

Airlines have long acted as consolidators of premium freight, even where the so-called 'air freight' is actually shipped by road. Today several of these airlines are replacing some of their road feeder services by 160 km/h intermodal trains, which are allocated their own flight numbers. This will increasingly see the road trailers replaced by swap bodies.

The other sector, express freight, is the area where high speed rail has the most potential. A range of operators, including airlines, shipping consolidators and postal companies, operate their own hub-and-spoke networks based on strategically-located sorting centres. Because of the need for early delivery times in the metropolitan areas, there is a limited time window of around 3h for the overnight trunk leg between hubs, where speeds over 200 km/h offer a major benefit.

At present express freight is moved as individual parcels and pallets to and from the hubs by trailers or swap bodies. With FEX trains running at high speeds they will have to be sealed, requiring the use of smaller air freight containers or unit loads.

Analysing the market, it can be concluded that FEX should concentrate on the so-called Kite network linking London, Paris, Frankfurt, K