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LONDON-Both the UK and the European Union are taking steps to modernize their rail freight systems and give them a greater role in the freight transport market. But in Europe opposition has developed from Germany’s primary rail company. The decisions would affect the location of new distribution facilities and the economic viability of existing ones.

In the UK, Network Rail, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and the Rail Freight Operators’ Association (RFOA) published a new paper, Planning Ahead, that lays out a strategy to increase the share of freight carried by rail to 20% by 2030. The strategy includes doubling the network’s available capacity.

“Our vision is for an efficient railway with increased capacity that can accommodate freight users’ expanding domestic and international needs,” says RFOA chairman Graham Smith. “This vision delivers reduced carbon emissions, increases the competitiveness of British industry and will enable rail to move 20% of freight in Britain.” Smith is also planning director for German rail giant DB Schenker, which in May unveiled a proposal to operate freight trains through the London to Channel Tunnel HS1 beginning early next year. The trains would share the track with high-speed passenger service that runs between London and Paris.

In addition to the rail organizations’ paper, the House of Lords EU Committee published a June 2 regarding the future of rail freight throughout Europe. The report examines the European Commission’s plans to revise a railway plan, known as the First Railway Package, adopted in 2001. The Commission wants to make revisions that encourage greater use of rail freight transport to alleviate the burden on roads and reduce carbon emissions.

In line with this, the European Union has taken an important step toward developing a north-south rail freight corridor linking Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Munich, Innsbruck, Verona and Naples. The corridor would be created through use of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). The ministers of transport from Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy signed a letter of intent setting forth long-term development objectives for the corridor.

“Establishing this cross-Europe rail freight axis will promote rail as an attractive option to transport goods over middle to long distances,” says the European Commission’s vice-president in charge of transport Antonio Tajani. “The signature of this letter of intent reflects a common commitment to work for the long term competitiveness of rail freight across Europe.”

Currently about 1,200 miles of European track is equipped with ERTMS. Fuller deployment of ERTMS would replace more than 20 different national train control and command systems in Europe. All major European rail freight corridors, as well as major freight hubs and terminals, are expected to be equipped by 2020. Advocates say this would remove a major technical barrier to international rail traffic.

Ironically, while DB Schenker’s Smith has come out in favor of improving the UK’s rail network, his firm’s parent company, Deutsche Bahn AG, has expressed serious doubts about the European network plan, claiming it could be disadvantageous for Germany. DB management has asked for alternative solutions it argues will do a better job of shifting freight to rail. “No other country in Europe would be as strongly affected by this regulation as Germany,” says DB chairman and CEO Hartmut Mehdorn. “It would mean a huge increase in red tape, destroy existing network capacities and severely impair the punctuality of regular transports in our complex network.”

Mehdorn says he agrees that Europe needs an efficient freight transport system, but he believes the corridor plan as currently presented would inhibit rather than support such a goal. “The regulation would not strengthen rail freight but would actually weaken rail transport as a whole,” he maintains.

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