Supported by the Marco Polo programme, the two-year Singer project is intended to develop new unaccompanied intermodal flows to and from Eastern Europe. Block trains from München, Verona and Budapest converge on a gateway hub at Ljubljana, offering competitive transit times and reducing costs


Rok Svetek,
Managing Director, Adria Kombi and Singer Project Co-ordinator

OVER THE NEXT two years, we envisage that there will be a significant jump in the volume of intermodal freight traffic moving to and from Central & Eastern Europe via a new hub in Ljubljana. The EU-backed Singer project led by Adria Kombi is expected to attract more than 330 million tonne-km from road to rail.

The European Union has long argued that switching long-distance international freight movements to rail is essential if Europe is to remain economically prosperous and at the same time meet its environmental commitments. This belief is one of the key drivers behind the three packages of legislation designed to deregulate and revitalise the European railway sector.

The Singer project (Slovenian Intermodal Gateway to European Rail) is intended to demonstrate that, despite a difficult economic climate, proper organisation and management of intermodal operations can deliver double-digit growth rates with a relatively small seed capital and limited operating support. In co-ordinating the project, Adria Kombi is working closely with UIRR, which it joined in 1990 as the first member from Central and Eastern Europe (under the name Yukombi). Along with partners in Hungary, Germany and Italy, we are pioneering the restructuring of intermodal operations in southeast Europe and positioning ourselves to meet the challenges of an expanded Europe.

Enlargement brings collapse

Singer is starting from a difficult base. The accession of 10 new member states to the European Union on May 1 2004 was undoubtedly one of the most significant developments in the history of the EU. But although enlargement was widely welcomed, it brought about a serious setback for intermodal transport. The CEE members of UIRR saw their international traffic almost halved in just two years.

The main reason was a near-total collapse of the rolling motorway business. This had accounted for 85% of the rail traffic moved by UIRR's CEE members, compared to around 20% for operators in Western Europe, where the bulk of the traffic is unaccompanied, moving in swap bodies, containers and piggyback semi-trailers.

Underpinning the rolling motorway business had been the limited number of permits available to road hauliers wishing to drive their lorries through Austria, and to some extent through neighbouring countries. Non-EU operators either had to take an extensive detour or reach their destination by rail. But when the new states joined the EU, most transit restrictions on international traffic to and from the accession states were swept away almost immediately.

Ironically, whilst an Eastern European lorry driver can now drive freely with his vehicle in the enlarged EU, this is still not yet possible on rail. A Central or Eastern European train driver cannot travel across Europe with his locomotive.

Considering the substantial differences in drivers' salaries between old and new member states, the unequal treatment of road and rail dramatically worsened the framework conditions for intermodal transport. The introduction of, or increases in, road taxes, particularly in Austria and Germany, has had little impact, and we do not expect any fundamental change in this situation for the foreseeable future.

Change of direction

In response to the changing market conditions, UIRR companies came up with two distinct development strategies:

  • transfer of the rolling motorway operations to the new EU external borders
  • development of unaccompanied intermodal traffic in the CEE accession states.

Intermodal operations in Austria and Hungary have already undergone extensive restructuring. Ökombi and Hungarokombi, which had previously operated in both the accompanied and unaccompanied sectors, are now concentrating solely on rolling motorway business. The primary focus is on moving traffic from third-party states across the EU's new eastern borders. Attempts have also been made to develop rolling motorway services in specific corridors where the governments are prepared to subsidise the operating costs - for example to enable a rapid transfer of traffic on sensitive Alpine routes.

Unaccompanied intermodal business in Austria and Hungary is now carried out by specialist operators. ICA in Austria has been a UIRR member since 2005, and Hungaria Intermodal was created at the end of 2005 to act as a local partner for long-established UIRR member companies such as Kombiverkehr and Cemat as well as ICA.

Singer strikes first

To develop new flows of unaccompanied intermodal business between Western, Central and Eastern Europe, Singer was launched in mid-2006 as part of the EU's Marco Polo programme.

The essential aim is to transfer long-distance international freight traffic from road to rail, using the Slovenian capital as a gateway. Block trains link Ljubljana with München, Verona and Budapest, which in turn act as connecting hubs from which the traffic can be forwarded over other national rail networks. In this way, the idea is to create a network of efficient international services, offering transit times that are competitive with road.

We believe that concentrating on block trains will bring the rail prices down to more attractive levels. Performance will also be improved by the elimination of time-consuming shunting of single wagons or part-trains, and in turn this will lead to higher a quality of service. Direct connections will improve punctuality, and in the event of any service failures, customers can be informed quickly.

The project was officially launched to customers with an international conference in Ljubljana on June 8 2006. Representatives of the four operating partners, UIRR, Slovenian Railways and the European Commission were all in attendance. The launch also attracted interest from neighbouring railway companies and intermodal operators in Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia, who are keen to develop further routes which will build on the basic Singer concept.

Total budget for the two-year project is around k17·2m, of which 80% represents the operating costs - purchasing traction and crews and the purchase of train paths - and another 10% for the hire of suitable wagons to form the trains. The bulk of this money is being contributed by the project partners, which are taking the commercial risk on the services - the operators get paid the same for running each train whether it is full or empty.

Singer has also been allocated k662 700 from the Marco Polo budget towards the operating subsidies over the two-year launch period. However, these have to be refunded at the rate of k1 per tonne-km missed if the project fails to achieve the anticipated transfer of 331·4 million tonne-km. If we achieve a greater transfer we won't get any additional support!

Emphasis on connections

Two standard train lengths have been adopted for the different routes. On the Koper - Ljubljana - Budapest/Beograd route, where maritime traffic is expected to predominate, the block trains will be formed of 24 four-axle wagons, giving a length of 500 m and a maximum capacity of 1 100 tonnes. The 'continental' trains linking Ljubljana with Verona and München are formed of 16 or 20 wagons depending upon demand. We anticipate load factors of between 80% and 90%.

At present the shuttle services linking Ljubljana with Verona and München operate twice a week in each direction (Table I). Connections are provided at Verona with domestic intermodal services to Bologna, Torino, Bari/Brindisi, Lamezia (Napoli) and Sicily. From München traffic can use Kombiverkehr's Kombinetz2000+ services to reach industrial areas across Germany and Belgium plus the North Sea ports including Hamburg and Rotterdam.

To the east, there are three trains a week to and from Budapest and two to Beograd. Both routes provide convenient connections with the western corridors, minimising delays en route. The busiest route is the Komar corridor to and from the port of Koper. As well as a daily connecting shuttle from the Ljubljana hub, the port sees a domestic Slovenian service to and from the cities of Celje and Maribor.

The trains are being operated for the project partners by the national railways, which means that they still have to stop at the borders to change locomotives and crews. The length of these stops is down to the railway operators - our contract merely requires that the trains must meet their onward connections.

Electronic documentation on all shipments, trains, connections, dangerous goods and so on, is exchanged between all UIRR member companies every night using a standard format. Customs clearance is the responsibility of the customers, who must provide the necessary documentation. We do not check the details of this, but only ensure that the relevant documents have been provided before the consignment is loaded onto a train.

Future developments

At the end of the two-year pilot project, the Singer partners must report back to the European Commission explaining the problems encountered in setting up and managing such a gateway concept. This includes reporting the tonne-km actually transferred and reimbursing some of the subsidies if the target is not achieved. Every Marco Polo application has to include a business plan covering the project period and the following year, and it is an obligation that the whole project should be economically viable after the two-year period of EU support.

I have no doubt that the Singer concept will continue after the pilot project ends. Having committed such a significant investment into establishing the network, the project partners have no intention of abandoning the scheme. In fact, we are already discussing the opportunities for further expansion. New and extended connections would add links to other countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Turkey. For some of our operators the success of the project is of vital importance.

One hot topic for debate will be the need to improve the infrastructure at the Ljubljana terminal to cope with increased flows. Another will be to commission a deeper analysis of competing traction suppliers, which might allow the various intermodal operators to harness the cost savings and improved quality that are promised by the deregulation of rail freight operations throughout the EU.

  • Expansion of the Singer concept will require further investment in facilities at the Ljubljana intermodal terminal
  • A regular shuttle service connects the Ljubljana hub with the Adriatic port of Koper

Le portail slovène aide à revigorer le transport combiné

Financé grâce au programme Marco Polo de l'Union européenne, le projet Singer sur deux ans a pour objectif de relancer le trafic combiné de et vers l'Europe de l'est. Des trains blocs au départ de München, Verona et Budapest convergent désormais vers un 'hub' situé à Ljubljana, offrant des temps de transit compétitifs et réduisant les coûts. Faisant suite au lancement réussi l'an dernier, Rok Svetek, directeur d'Adria Kombi, assure que les partenaires du projet attendent un transfert de 330 millions de tonnes kilomètres de la route vers le rail au cours des deux prochaines années

Slovenischer Gateway hilft zur Stärkung des kombinierten Verkehrs

Finanziert aus dem Marco Polo Programm der Europäischen Union, hat das auf zwei Jahre veranschlagte Singer Projekt zum Ziel den kombinierten Verkehr von und nach Osteuropa zu beleben. Blockzüge von München, Verona und Budapest treffen sich nun in einem neuen Gateway in Ljubljana und bieten so konkurrenzfähige Transportzeiten und geringere Kosten. Nach einem erfolgreichen Start im letzten Jahr, sagt Rok Svetek, Geschäftsführender Direktor von Adria Kombi, dass die Projektpartner schätzen, in den nächsten zwei Jahren, 330 Millionen Tonnenkilometer von der Strasse auf die Schiene zu bringen

El gateway de Eslovenia ayuda a revitalizar el sector del combinado

El proyecto Singer, de dos años de duración y financiado con fondos del programa Marco Polo de la Unión Europea, ha sido creado para revitalizar el transporte combinado desde y hacia Europa del Este. Trenes bloque desde München, Verona y Budapest convergen ahora en un nuevo hub en Ljubljana, ofreciendo plazos de transporte más competitivos y reduciendo costes. Después del exitoso lanzamiento del año pasado, Rok Svetek, Director de Adria Kombi, afirma que los socios del proyecto esperan transferir 330 millones de toneladas/kilómetro de la carretera al ferrocarril en los próximos dos años