JANUARY 1 marked the formal start of the New Opera study into the feasibility of developing a dedicated rail freight network in Europe (RG 7.04 p399). Speaking to around 250 freight specialists at an RFF freight infrastructure colloquium in Paris on February 10, Vice-Chairman of the European Freight & Logistics Forum Franco Castagnetti outlined a breathtaking vision for European rail freight.

The study for the European Commission is expected to take three and a half years. New Opera will ’apply a new business model, a new service culture, and new technology to a transport system that was a motor for change in the past and can be so in the future’. Four scenarios are to be investigated, including ’do nothing’ and the phased development of an ambitious network with two high-capacity corridors running north-south and east-west across Europe.

Stretching for up to 2000 km, the corridors could include up to 500 km of new double-track line between key hubs, with some sections making use of reopened routes. The corridors would be engineered to accept 30 tonne axleloads with clearance for double-stack container trains, precluding the use of electric traction. Steepest grade would be limited to 0·8%, and trains would be up to 2250m long. One proposal envisages the use of Level 3 ERTMS.

Castagnetti admitted that critics had already dismissed the proposals as a dream, but we believe that the study should be taken seriously, not least because the 27 parties involved are major industry stakeholders; they include Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, AnsaldoBreda, Rail Traction Co, rail4chem, RFF, DB Netz, ProRail, Unife and Deutsche Post. At the very least, a long-term vision is needed to shake the traditional element of the European rail freight business out of its complacency (p132).

New Opera is a long way ahead, but watch out for a bouleversement in France. RFF is working on plans for a regular-interval timetable on the pattern of the Swiss Taktfahrplan, with freight trains timed to pass through major nodes in the troughs between busy periods every hour and half hour. The proposal would consign decades of timetable tradition to history, and could give French city pairs the kind of frequent passenger service found elsewhere in Europe.

And the story does not end there. In March 2003 Transport Minister Gilles de Robien promised us that competition was coming to the French network. The wait is not over yet, but next month could see a milestone passed. Partly because of pressure from the European Commission over the Alstom rescue package, the French government has agreed to set up a body reporting to the transport ministry that will issue safety certificates to open-access operators seeking to use the RFF network; this will later become an independent entity to conform with European rules. And as we went to press, Connex subsidiary CFTA Cargo was expecting to pioneer the first French open access operation, hauling steel traffic from Dugny and Sorcy into Germany from April 1. We shall see.