Challenge for Europe

The energy consumption per traveller or per tonne.km transported is low, due to the low friction of the rail against the wheel, and of air along the continuous row of wagons. In addition, it is a highly reliable and safe mode of transport.

In the long term, it has the potential to replace a significant share of two less energy-efficient modes of transport: the short and medium-haul airplane and the long-distance lorry. Indeed, a high-speed train, travelling at an average of 250 to 300 km/h, has the capacity to cross the continent in the 8 hours of a night travel. Symmetrically, slow, heavy and long freight trains have the capacity to profitably capture a very significant share of transport, as is currently illustrated in the United States of America, where this share is in the order of 40 %.

However, in order for this objective to be reached, the European rail networks need to be deeply transformed. Indeed, these networks have been designed to be universal, with the capacity to serve the needs of both passenger and freight transport, at intermediate speeds around 100 km/h. Conversely recent evolutions show that the technical requirements for these two uses are increasingly diverging:

  • passenger transport requires light, fast trains (300 km/h and more)
  • freight requires heavy, long trains, that can be muc h slower (50km/h).

Proposals

In order to increase the ability for the high-speed trains to compete at European scale with the airplane, the current plans for Trans-Europe Networks should indeed be implemented. An additional requirement would be that these networks be compatible with night operation, in order for trans-continental trains to operate (eg. Paris – Warsaw; Stockholm – Milan; Madrid – Berlin; London – Budapest). This places a significant technical challenge to the current maintenance procedures that take place at night.

In order for freight trains to be competitive with lorries on trans-European transport, a dedicated and additional freight network should be established alongside the existing one, with the following features:

  • large maximum allowable weight per wheel
  • long storage stations
  • longer units for the train traffic regulation
  • container-based marshalling yards with vertical handling of containers.

These heavy but long-term and profitable investments are a privileged means to usefully employ the massive economic stimulus packages currently being set up in Europe.

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