Italy’s new speed rule puts a brake on quiet freight trains
In Italy, freight wagons using certain brakes now have to operate with a maximum speed of 80 km/h instead of 100 km/h. The Italian authority ANSFISA has just introduced a new regulation for trains using composite brake blocks (LL blocks IB 116*). For dangerous goods trains, the speed limit is set to 60 km/h.
The decision is in effect as of 9 November, and the rail freight sector is already reacting negatively to the development. As Rail cargo Group mentions, this decision affects the entire industry and will pose problems due to the delays that the lower train speeds will cause.
Composite brake blocks have been among the rail freight industry trends of the last few years. They are substituting the conventional cast-iron brake blocks used by wagons for many decades. The composite brake blocks are made from plastic, and they are crucial for reducing noise pollution and making rail more environmentally and people-friendly. In fact, they can reduce braking noises by half and thus create better conditions for residents who live around train tracks or animals in nature.
Many companies, including Rail Cargo Group, DB cargo and METRANS, have retrofitted their wagon and locomotive fleets with composite brakes, while countries like Germany and Switzerland have adopted legislation that bans conventional brakes or imposes penalties for noisy wagons. Regarding the latest rules in Italy, Rail Cargo Group commented that it regrets the decision since it contradicts the strive of companies for quieter and more sustainable rail freight operations.
Could composite brakes be dangerous?
Nevertheless, the story has another side. The advantages of the LL-brake blocks have been agreed upon and approved for use throughout Europe since 2013. However, the market has pointed out the increasingly daring disadvantages they might have. According to a 2018 study of the Dutch Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT), the LL-brake blocks cause relatively more wear and tear of the thread of the wheel. Specifically, they are less capable of disposing the heat that accumulates due to the friction between the brake and the wheel.
The case study concerned a Dutch operator carrying twenty wagons of dangerous goods who experienced that the use of composite brake blocks led to a transformation of its train wheels, in addition to heated brake blocks, back in 2017. The damage was detected, and no accidents occurred. However, the incident led to the concern of the Dutch Inspectorate, as it indicated a possible safety risk. The transformed wheel surface could lead to derailment.