Freight trains and climate change

Eurocargo freight train heading south at Nissan

With climate change hitting the headlines, and protests by our younger generation, who are going to having to pick up the pieces, there is a small glimmer of light as far as the transfer of freight from road to freight trains.

Figures published a couple of years ago showed some 4,000 heavy lorries crossing the frontier at Le Boulou, 2,000 in each direction; that equals just under 100 lorries per hour, or one lorry every 45 seconds day and night.

A recent Conference hosted by the UIC International Union of Railways in Paris considered a recent report suggesting that freight movement in Europe will increase by up to 30% in 2025.

So it is worth reading the editorial from the international railway magazine Today’s Railways EU edition quote;

“By 2030 the amount of freight throughout Europe is expected to increase by 30%. At present around 75% of all freight is moved by road, and road’s share is inexorably increasing. If no action is taken, today’s freight industry CO2 emissions, estimated at around 275 million tonnes per annum, will rise at around 80 million tonnes per annum. By 2030, under current environmental legislation, the transport industry must reduce its CO2, output by 25% and a third of this reduction must come from freight transport. To achieve this goal the Rail Freight Forward coalition was formed by 18 rail freight operators and rail transport bodies. The coalition has a target of doubling rail freight’s market share to 30% by 2030, since rail freight transport generates around six times less CO2 than road haulage. Following the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice between 2 and 15 December 2018, the coalition launched what is known as ‘Noah’s Train’. It is named, of course, after the world’s first ever instance of environmental activism (a highly successful one), in the face of a climate catastrophe.” Dr Mike Bent

Those of us who see the number of freight trains using the line en-route south north from le Boulou – Perpignan – Narbonne – Béziers know that many of these international freight trains are restricted to trailers or containers but do not transport complete lorries.

DB German Railways freight train heading south close to Narbonne

There is a limit to the length of these freight trains, now 750 metres, not because of weight but simply because they cannot operate under the present railway signalling system.  To increase their length all of their locomotives have to be equipped with ERTMS, European Railway Traffic Management System, an in-cab signalling system, as well as the track.  Then the parking bays – loop lines all have to be lengthened to accommodate these longer trains.  If you then add ever-increasing numbers of freight trains with ever-increasing numbers of passenger trains you end up with a limit as to the number of trains that can be run within certain periods of time.

You simply cannot have an A9 or M1 style traffic jam scenario on a railway.

So the news that the Port of Barcelona and RENFE (Spanish Railways) and our own SNCF have reached an operating arrangement for piggy-back freight to be moved from the Port of Barcelona to Le Boulou through the tunnel is a small step in the right direction. These Spanish trains will be hauled north from Le Boulou as part of the daily rail freight lorry specials by SNCF to Calais, and or Bettembourg – Luxembourg.

But to make any impression on this ever increasing road haulage traffic, we will need to have more than 25 extra freight trains per day to even scratch the surface.  To do that we need to build new lines and extend the existing rail network.

What SNCF has to do is to accept that underused lines such as the line from Béziers to Clermont Ferrand via Bédarieux will have to be brought up to standard to allow freight to use them. Or we may have to give up our traditional Spanish orange for Christmas.   Some are also suggesting that we need to think twice before flying off to exotic parts with Ryanair!

By Chris Elliott

Chris Elliott is a former instructor on the Longmoor Military Railway and now the Amis des Wagons-Lits CIWL roving correspondent in Europe and author of The Lost Railway Lines of l’Hérault.