Europe Tackles Highway Congestion, Seeks to Place Trucks on Rails

The integration of Europe provides a good example of the law of unintended consequences. As trade movement throughout the continent has become easier, highways have become more congested. The problem is trucks — too many of them.

This is particularly true where terrain constrains road building such as the tunnels through the Alps from France to Switzerland. Many French and Swiss see the rapid growth of highway freight tonnage as harmful to the environment and a nuisance to the population. As a potential solution, the French and Swiss are promoting the use of ferroutage — the transportation of trucks and containers by rail.

Transportation of this sort is already available and operating well through the Channel Tunnel between France and the United Kingdom. While most of the freight using the Chunnel begins and ends its trip by highway, passage under the English Channel is by rail only. In addition, new rail-only tunnels are planned for other areas of France. These include new alpine routes through the Saint-Gothard and Simplon passes to Switzerland, through Brenner Pass to Austria, Mont-Cenis between France and Italy, and passage through the Pyrenees to Spain through the Vignemale pass. Some of these tunnels will be 25 to 35 miles long and will not enter service for almost 20 years.

While new tunnels will help reduce traffic congestion, France must make use of many older facilities such as the 8.7-mile long Frejus tunnel into Italy. Built 130 years ago, the interior tunnel cross section is only 75 sq ft — too small for most modern rolling stock. Two proposals could make Frejus more efficient. One solution is to scrape the interior of the tunnel to increase interior height and width. Another solution is extremely low-profile freight cars.

LOHR, a French rail equipment company, has proposed the use of Modalohr cars with load floors a mere seven inches above the ground for use in low-roof tunnels. Standard rail bogies at each end of the car would allow Modalohr equipment to travel at the same speed as conventional rail cars.

The height differential between the load floor and the rail running gear does not allow vehicles to be loaded on the cars from the end as is the case with conventional cars. The LOHR solution is a pivoting floor that allows trucks to be driven onto the rail car from the side. A retractable ramp bridges the seven-inch gap between the load floor and ground level. When a truck is positioned correctly, the load floor pivots back into its position along the rail car centerline.

Faster Train Loading

The concept is much like that of rail passenger cars with a multitude of doors along the side. A number of heavy vehicles can be loaded onto Modalohr cars at the same time rather than driving aboard the train from only one end at a conventional rail ramp. Loading or unloading can take place in an hour or less instead of three or more as is common for conventional rail cars, says Sebastian Lange, a rail project manager.

SNCF, the French rail network operator, plans to purchase Modalohr cars for use in the Frejus tunnel. They also can be used in narrow valleys or around urban areas where traffic congestion requires the movement of some highway freight by rail. Lange has proposed using Modalohr cars to shuttle highway traffic around Lyon, the second largest city in France.

SNCF wants to double the volume of highway freight handled at least partially by rail within the next 10 years. To accomplish this will require using the best technology available and cooperating with other rail operators, especially Deutsche Bahn AG, says Francis Rol-Tanguy, freight manager of SNCF.

Better Braking, Longer Trains

Technology under consideration is train tracking with GPS and electronic braking. Getting a train slowed or stopped smoothly presents a special problem. Conventional brake systems use compressed air supplied by the locomotive. The result is sequential braking one car at a time with unavoidable jolts as the trailing car contacts the leading car that has just applied its brakes. To limit the effects of sequential braking, most trains are held to less than half a mile in length.

Better braking will allow longer trains. Alstom Transport, the French equipment manufacturer, proposes to use an electronic system it calls “Febis.” This system activates the brakes on all cars in a train simultaneously, either through a wiring harness or by radio. With all cars slowing at the same time, jolting is eliminated and train length can be increased to as much as 1½ miles.

Longer trains should result in better service from ports and lower transportation costs. Proof will be available shortly when the first trains with electronic braking begin operation in 2002.

The ability to combine rail and highway transportation remains a necessity in Europe, because most manufacturing plants and distribution centers lack rail sidings. Trucks are indispensable to distribution. However, combined transport using containers in both highway and rail modes can shift the longest part of a trip to rail. Moving containers by truck to and from rail terminals allows the majority of any trip to take place by rail, mostly at night, says Jean-Claude Brunier, head of Transports Auto Brunier, a French motor carrier.

TAB operates a daily link across the Alps between Paris and Milan, a distance of 621 miles. TAB terminals at each end of the line can handle trains up to half a mile in length. Powered lifts handle containers. With GPS tracking, shippers can check container location on the TAB web site. The company also uses tracking to help eliminate delays from highway traffic problems. In cooperation with the Educational Institute for Transport and Logistics, TAB tracks containers inbound to its terminals by road. This helps prevent delays from trains waiting for late containers, says Bernard Borie, head of research for IPTL. The tracking system uses GPS locating, real-time traffic maps, and mobile telephones. The system allows managers to estimate delays and direct truck drivers around traffic congestion. Tests of the system suggest that a fleet of 50 trucks serving intermodal terminals could save between 380 and 520 hours of productive transit time a month.

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