Switzerland opens Gotthard Tunnel

If you like scenic rail trips through the Alps then the recent opening of Switzerland’s Gotthard base tunnel will not be welcome.

If your business depends on freight links between northern and southern Europe then you will be pleased to see the 57km tunnel. It lops 30km from the traditional route through the old Gotthard tunnels and provides more capacity for freight trains.

The new tunnels are the culmination of immense engineering effort. They also show how long it takes to build major rail projects. Although the idea for the tunnel was first mooted in 1947, it was not until November 1999 that work officially started to dig through hard Alpine rock.

There have been financial problems along the way, as well as a period in the 1980s when the tunnels were not thought to be needed. Switzerland held several public votes to test whether its citizens supported the idea of these massive tunnels. It turned out that they did.

The idea of a base tunnel is that rather than climbing a valley and then piercing a mountain with a tunnel, a base tunnel disappears underground in the valley bottom, to emerge in the equivalent place on the other side of the hill. If you were to build one for Manchester to Leeds, it would start at the foot of Miles Platting bank, immediately east of Manchester Victoria station, and emerge at Mirfield, 30 miles away. It would cut journey times but I wouldn’t fancy the view.

Amid much fanfare, the Swiss opened the Gotthard tunnel on June 1, with services expected to start running in December, when European timetables next change. Gotthard lies on the rail route that links the Northern European ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam with Genoa in Italy, running via Germany’s Ruhr industrial heartland and Milan, which is the economic powerhouse of Northern Italy.

It’s remarkable that Switzerland has ploughed so much money into a project that supports European Union policies (it’s not part of the EU) and does much to support the economies of its neighbours. Of course, there’s something in it for Switzerland too. It should see a reduction in lorries crossing the country by road, with a higher proportion carried ‘piggyback’ on wagons. Rail already holds a 70% market share of international freight and plans to increase lorry fees and cut rail track access fees should further encourage the switch.

The costs are eye-watering. In 1998, the Swiss parliament authorised 30 billion Swiss francs (£21bn) for the Gotthard, Lotschberg, Ceneri and Zimmerburg base tunnels and a link from Eastern Switzerland that would join the Gotthard route near Lake Zurich. This sum was to be financed 55% from heavy road vehicle tax, 19% from a 0.1% increase in VAT and 10% from customs duties on fuels with the rest coming from loans.

Of these four tunnels, Lotschberg opened in December 2007, Ceneri is planned to open in 2020 and while the first Zimmerberg tunnel has been completed, work on the second is suspended. Gotthard, Ceneri and Zimmerberg all lie on the same route.

The 30bn proved not to be enough and by 2004 the project was trimmed. Yet it was not until 2008 that the Swiss parliament closed the credit gap by authorising 13bn Swiss francs for Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels.

As with many huge engineering projects, the figures associated with building Gotthard are impressive. Up to 2,400 workers built the two 57-km single-track tunnels. When you add cross-passages and shafts, the total length stretches to 152km. Tunnellers excavated 28.2 million tonnes of rock, some of which was reused to make the concrete that lines the tunnel walls, while some now forms the fill for dams or is used for landscaping.

At its greatest, there’s 2,300m of rock above the tunnels, which puts immense pressure on some parts.Unlike the shorter Channel Tunnel, there appear to be no plans to scan passengers and their luggage before transiting Gotthard.

It took three years to install the track. And that was with 125 workers over three shifts per day, seven days per week. They laid 290km of slab track, 380,000 sleepers and used 131,000 cubic metres of concrete. The final ‘golden sleeper’ was laid in October 2014.

Nine workers died during construction and they are commemorated by a memorial unveiled on May 31.

The emphasis of the tunnel is clear from its 260 daily freight paths (compared with 180 on the classic route) and capacity for 65 daily passenger services. Freight will run at 160km/h (100mph) and passenger trains at 200km/h (125mph). Tests using a ICE train hired from DB reached 275km/h (172mph) which gives the potential for higher passenger speeds. Freight tests involved running a 2,200 tonne train, 1,500m long with a locomotive at the front, in the middle and at the rear.

These tests showed the ability of the tunnel and its European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 signalling to cope. This is in-cab signalling and moves away from each country having its own signalling systems, which should reduce the need to change locomotives at borders. This can save time, as does the tunnel’s gentler 1.25% gradient which removes the need to add extra locomotives as is done on the classic route.

Building Gotthard has taken decades of planning and commitment. It had a wobbly patch in the 1980s, partly as a result of recession and its case was not helped by another recession in the late 2000s but by then construction was well underway. Gotthard’s case was made stronger by its being the subject of a successful referendum in which the Swiss voted for it. But given the angst that Britain’s European Union referendum has caused, I can’t see any government here putting HS2 to the vote.

To fully return the benefits of Gotthard, Ceneri must be opened. Zimmerberg must be completed and opened too. To deliver best effect from HS2, Britain will need to deliver other projects. That doesn’t mean HS2 is worthless on its own, simply that it will be part of a network and not a isolated line.

This article first appeared in RAIL 803, published June 22 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Will we ever see Eurostar’s Channel Tunnel monopoly end?

I wonder it we will ever see an alternative to Eurostar providing all passenger rail services through the Channel Tunnel?

I had great hopes that DB might provide some competition after the company brought an ICE train to St Pancras. But that was back in 2010 and the idea seems dead now.

I can’t see much encouragement coming from the European Commission’s decision to allow French state railway SNCF to take control of Eurostar following the British government’s sale of its 40% share. SNCF’s takeover does come with conditions which include it offering Eurostar peak paths to new entrants on a “fair and non-discriminatory” basis if those new entrants cannot gain paths through the usual procedures.

DB never even got as far as bidding for paths, having become stymied in the safety processes surrounding the Channel Tunnel itself. These processes are also under French state control, hence my scepticism that a second operator while ever be permitted to run international trains to and from London using the tunnel.

I have no problem with prospective operators having to demonstrate that their trains will be sufficiently safe to use the tunnel. I just wish that road hauliers were subject to a similarly strict regime, given that it has been burning lorries that have caused all the major damage to the tunnel since it opened in May 1994.

This article first appeared in RAIL 775, published in May 2015.

Goodnight European Sleepers

Passengers hurrying for an evening train on Friday December 12 at Paris Gare de l’Est were greeted with a small demonstration and speeches.

In the rain at the other end of the station’s Platform 5, a couple of photographers were turning their lenses towards SNCF electric locomotive 26162.

For this train was the final Paris-Munich sleeper service, axed from that night by operator Deutsche Bahn.

PIC1 Philip Haigh SNCF 26162 Paris-Munich sleeper Paris East 121214 IMG_0806

In pouring Parisian rain, SNCF 26162 prepares to leave with the 2005 sleeper service on December 12 2014. This was the service’s final departure. PHILIP HAIGH.

The train’s arrival in Bavaria’s capital the following morning went unremarked as bleary eyed passengers trudged towards the concourse in search of onward connections.

Aboard the train itself, there had been no wake – there was no bar or restaurant car – although I suspect a few couchette compartments were well stocked with beer and wine.

Sleeper services are shrinking all over Europe. Only in Britain do they appear to be thriving. And that’s in stark contrast to the situation a decade ago when Europe’s services were thriving and Britain’s in decline.

Since then, there’s been a successful campaign to save the Cornish Sleeper. Indeed, it can now be hard to book a berth on this train. Scotland’s sleeper trains are set to be improved with new stock and considerable investment.

For long-distance travellers, sleeper services make good use of time. Board in one city and wake up the next morning in another. The decline of the European network pushes people towards short-haul flights from Paris to Berlin, for example, if their time is valuable.

Despite DB withdrawing such City Night Line trains, the company’s website was still promoting the sleeper concept a couple of weeks later: “With City Night Line, you get a good night’s sleep and wake up fresh at your destination the next morning. When you travel by City Night Line, you can be sure of a comfortable and pleasant journey whether you are planning a short break, visiting friends or family, or taking a business trip.”

Why then have the trains been axed? Those following their fate closely suggests that it’s a combination of European Union pressure to put railways on a commercial and competitive footing. Writing in November, EU blogger Jon Worth said: “The story about why this is happening is a complicated one, but at its core is the change in the nature of Europe’s railways – from being public services with a public ethos, to competitive, profit making businesses. The EU itself is behind this change, forcing railways to separate their networks from their operations to try to promote competition. This change has worked to a certain extent for rail freight, but when it comes to passengers it means long distance services that run only a couple of times a day, and are borderline profitable, become too complicated and cumbersome to operate and are cut from the timetables. Track access charges – the cost to a rail company to run a service on a neighbouring country’s tracks – are often cited as the reason.”

It seems no-one is really interested in making international sleeper trains work and there’s no organisation that can effectively lobby for them.

Keith Barrow in an IRJ blog commented: “In this shifting landscape, overnight services seem to have been largely forgotten. It seems ironic that while the European Commission ploughs billions of euros into developing cross-border rail infrastructure, international links are being quietly curtailed because there is no common vision for their continued operation. This flies in the face of EU policy on modal shift and carbon reduction, effectively forcing rail passengers onto short-haul flights.”

The European Passengers’ Federation (no, I’d not heard of it either) briefly mentioned CNL services in its December bulletin saying: “An independent fact-finding study should be commissioned on the economics of international night trains and their social and economic benefits, as the first step towards improving them.”

Too little and too late. Now the trains have gone, I can’t see them returning. Europe is the poorer for its lost international night trains.

This article first appeared in RAIL 765.

Something different – German steam

You will not find much steam on this blog but I took a few days out to see the latest German Dampfspetakal held around Neustadt in late May and early June.

It featured a host of steam-hauled trains to various stations including Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern. And all or the price of an ordinary ticket!

This video shows an eastbound departure from Neustadt with 01 118 on June 1 2014. This express passenger locomotive was built in 1934 and is usually based in Frankfurt.

http://youtu.be/ihxIUITm2_k

Bright future for Channel Tunnel freight

Whisper it quietly, but perhaps the Channel Tunnel is finally coming good for railfreight.

Eurotunnel’s figures for the first quarter of 2014 show a 24% increase in tonnage compared with the same quarter in 2013. This increase to 399,991 tonnes was carried by 706 trains, up 13% on the 624 trains in 2013 Q1.

The increase has prompted Eurotunnel to extend its ETICA scheme that provides help for start-up intermodal traffic. ET launched the scheme last May and now says it’s “succeeded beyond expectations”. The extension will cover new car transport, food and drink transported in conventional full train loads, consumer goods, logistics flows and manufactured goods.

There’s a final intriguing category: “Permanent distribution and service flows for rail freight suffering from obstacles outside of the Fixed Link”. ET doesn’t explain just what it means but there is the old joke that the only problem with the Channel Tunnel is that it comes up in France.

Eurotunnel is also reducing its off-peak access charges (2300-0700) by 25% and has convinced French state railway infrastructure owner, RFF, to drop its Frethun security check charge of 600 euros per train.

ET hopes to increase tunnel use to 5,000 freight trains a year in 2018. However, it wants help and said in late April: “This objective could be achieved more easily if the other involved parties, amongst whom the principals are RFF and Network Rail supported the creation of a European Freight Corridor between Continental Europe and the United Kingdom and helped to remove the barriers which limit interoperability between networks.”

There’s plenty of support for ET’s changes. At the European Commission, Vice President Sim Kallas commented: “It stands to unblock a major bottleneck in Europe’s transport network. This is good news for Europe’s businesses that rely on effective and competitively priced transport services and good news for consumers they serve. It is also good news for the environment, as rail is the most energy efficient way of transporting goods.”

The commission also put ET’s challenge into perspective, noting that 2008 saw 2,718 freight trains, 2011 2,388 and 2012 2,325. 43% of the tunnel’s capacity is unused, it added.

The Rail Freight Group added its welcome to the commission’s as did major European operator DB Schenker. Let’s hope their optimism is well-placed.

 

RAIL 743 Stop & Examine

DB drops plans to run Channel Tunnel passenger trains

DB’s decision to drop plans to run international trains to London is a bitter blow to those promoting European rail travel.

With HS1 and the Channel Tunnel it should be simple to connect London with European cities beyond Paris and Brussels. DB’s experience shows that it is not.

When the company presented its ICE train to crowds of admirers at St Pancras back in 2010, DB showed style and bravura. For Germany, went the unsaid message, anything is possible. That was to hide the company’s essentially cautious nature. International services may have been a way into the UK market but the subsequent purchase of Arriva provided that for far less risk.

DB is now behind Alliance Rail’s expansionist open access ambitions. If they, like the international trains, prove too difficult then I will not be surprised to see DB pull out, just as it did with Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway.

To return to the Channel Tunnel, if DB was ambitious and cautious at the same time, others did not cover themselves in glory. I was never convinced the Intergovernmental Commission was sufficiently active to encourage new entrants (although it did grant DB a licence last summer). As a result, the Channel Tunnel retains its own rules that are stronger than Euro-standard rules that pertain in more challenging tunnels.

As I covered the news story over the years following 2010, something was never right. DB would complain that the trains it had ordered from Siemens were late; Siemens would point out that DB had not ordered trains compliant with Channel Tunnel rules and then DB would blame further delays on problems with an Italian signalling system switch. Meanwhile, Eurostar ordered the same trains (albeit in longer formations) with the same signalling, seemingly without problems.

Germany’s plan was always ambitious. UK rules for passport checks made proposed operations much harder and added time to journeys. Splitting trains at Brussels to serve Amsterdam and Frankfurt added timetable risk. It left the proposal on a knife edge between the sub-four journeys needed to compete with air and financial ruin.

Eurostar presses on with its plans and is set to launch London-Amsterdam trains in December 2016. That’s great but I’d welcome another operator through the Channel Tunnel to keep Eurostar on its toes.

DB ICE visits St Pancras

Plan on ice. DB has dropped ambitious plans to link London with Frankfurt and Amsterdam. It launched the idea by bringing an ICE high-speed train to St Pancras on October 19 2010. PHILIP HAIGH.

 

 

A February night on SWT

After storm after storm, Christmas seems ages ago and yet rail staff in many parts of the country have been working above and beyond the call of duty since then.

Those most obviously affected are dressed in orange with hard hats. But we must not forget train crew whose rosters are changed, timetable planners who keep having to redo their work, and those managers who have to pull the whole show together. There will be plenty more jobs that I’ve not mentioned which have also been stretched.

February 14 was certainly a busy day with another storm tearing over Britain. I had to go to Salisbury and duly boarded SWT’s 1850 from Waterloo. All went well for the first hour, although I had noted an SWT ‘tweet’ part-way into my journey that warned against travel after 2000.

I was only 30 minutes away from ‘Sarum’ when my ‘159’ rolled to a halt at Overton station. There was a fallen tree ahead, we were quickly told. A little while later an Up train passed, which raised hopes. Unfortunately we then moved the same way, running ‘wrong road’ back to Basingstoke. We never made it, stopping somewhere – I couldn’t tell you where – with another tree on the line.

Meanwhile, the orange team had cleared the tree towards Andover so our driver changed ends and we headed west, to reach Whitchurch 169 minutes late.

More trees caused more delays and we were held outside Andover. Eventually we reached it, around four hours late, but only just! There were so many trains in Platform 2 that our six-car train had only its leading door at the platform.

Some passengers left for taxis, with one for Yeovil. No announcements revealed the plan for the rest of the journey and so it was another 45 minutes before Salisbury passengers were told to leave for a taxi. Seeing the row of ‘159s’ in the platform it became obvious we were never going to proceed beyond Andover but it would have been nice to have been told. Never mind, my planned 2020 arrival became after 0100.

So am I complaining? Not really. The railway and its staff have been through one of the toughest periods I can remember (worse at ground level than Hatfield’s aftermath I reckon). I salute them all for their efforts.

 

 

Reopening the ‘Withered Arm’

My old mate Andrew Roden made a sterling case in RAIL 742 for reopening the LSWR route through Okehampton to provide a diversion around Dawlish and its troubled sea wall.

However, both Dawlish and Okehampton rely on a single flood hotspot – Cowley Bridge Junction. Here, Network Rail erects water booms across the track whenever floods threaten so that it can protect signalling equipment. If the line here is blocked then Devon and Cornwall is cut-off, whether or not there’s a line through Okehampton or through Dawlish.

Perhaps a new cut-off between Rewe and Newton St Cyres station to avoid Cowley Bridge will help, as south-western stalwart Tony Berkeley suggests. With other improvements, this could cut 40 minutes from a journey to Cornwall, the peer comments.