‘Rail transport is still a passive profit-taker’
Sebastian Jürgens has been managing the port of Lübeck since 2014. Previously, he led intermodal activities at, among others, Deutsche Bahn. He is an expert in goods transport by rail. In an interview, he explained what he believes must be done to realise a modal shift.
“The first prognoses on the market share of rail freight in 2030 show that it certainly does not grow. The reasons are already known: a lot of work, lack of capacity, priority for passenger transport and so on. It is striking that road transport does benefit from a growth of traffic, despite the many road works in Germany, the bridges that are impassable and the increasing number of traffic jams”, he uttered.
“The result, if these forecasts come true, is unsatisfactory and unnecessary. We have to tackle the problems with intelligent solutions. But when I hear or read about possible solutions, it usually concerns silver bullets such as more infrastructure and especially digitalisation. Of course, the first point is legitimate, but construction works are endless, certainly in Germany with all the protests from local residents. The second point seems clever, but usually the person who makes the statement does not know what digital solutions might look like.
“Because the two solutions mentioned above are not sufficient, a broader discussion is needed. In order to determine a direction, we need to find an answer to two questions: what volume increase is, in view of the relatively limited number of bottlenecks in rail freight transport, realistic and feasible? And what is the capacity requirement for rail freight operators?”
Taking advantage of opportunities
“Various solutions are available for the maximum utilisation of the current capacity. Firstly, the rail sector must, quite simply, make full use of all the options that are available. If the road hauliers complain about a lack of drivers, railway must not counter that with a lack of drivers.
“The costs of staff per employee in rail transport are only a fraction of those in road transport. With such a clear competitive advantage with such an essential activity, we must invest precisely in this. It should not be possible that trains can not be operated due to a lack of drivers.
“Unreliability is also a brake on the productivity of the track. Too often trains are ‘put aside’ to give passenger transport priority. In Germany, diversion routes for road traffic are generally arranged in close coordination with large shippers and freight forwarders.”
Problems, no solutions
“On the railway track, the logistics service provider, with his client, is far too often confronted with a front of ‘rail experts’ who extensively outline the problems but do not propose any solutions. The rail sector must engage more intensively with the users, with the customer. And let us be honest: this need also existed before the large-scale blockade at Rastatt – but here it became very clear.
“If politicians and other policymakers constantly underline the importance of a modal shift, regulations must be adopted where rail freight transport is of the same importance as rail passenger transport. Intermodal traffic is equally served with reliability and regularity as passenger traffic.”
“It is important to visualise the capacity requirements of rail customers and include transport movements in the train schedule, as is already the case in Switzerland. Only when you know the total capacity and transport needs can the infrastructure be used to its full potential.
“The rail sector must and can become a pioneer in the field of technical and digital innovations. There are first experiments for automatic driving with metro trains and even freight trains without a driver in Australia – even on the mixed track.
“However, real large-scale projects that focus on the use of new technical possibilities are only known in road traffic. The car industry has a much better position when grants are awarded. I hardly know of any state-financed innovative projects in the rail sector. And certainly not at European level.”
Trailers on wagons
“Now let us go to the second question. Which transport need does rail actually have? It is often claimed that the need for rail modality within the transport mix is getting smaller, due to the fact that, with the rise of e-commerce, more and more relatively small consumer items are being transported in small volumes, and trail for that cargo is less suitable.
“That assumption must be countered with force. It is precisely this cargo that is largely containerised, and therefore suitable for transport by rail. However, it would help if complete trailers could be transferred to wagons in many more places. At present, about 95 per cent of the trailers in Europe can not be put on a car with a crane.
“It is at least as important that the rail sector, together with large shippers, develops common concepts for the transport of goods. In the chemical sector that worked perfectly well a few years ago. Only in this way can rail freight traffic rise from the role of a passive profit-taker and develop into a fully-fledged alternative.”