The successful testing of a 1.5 km-long freight train by an EU-funded project shows that Europe is on the right track when it comes to cost efficient, flexible and environmentally friendly solutions to the competitive demands of the 21st century.
© Oleksiy Mark fotolia
Running longer and heavier freight trains along Europe’s extensive rail network will save operators money, relieve congestion and help cut emissions. It will also help domestic manufacturers transport their goods more easily, and by extension lead to cheaper European-made products in supermarkets.
Up until now though, European braking and signalling rules have limited the size of freight trains. This could be about to change, with new technologies developed by the EU-funded Marathon project allowing operators to run longer trains safely and in compliance with the rules.
Dawn of the super train
Earlier this year, the project team test-ran the first 1.5 km-long freight train from Lyon to Nîmes, France, carrying a maximum load of some 4 000 tonnes and reaching a top speed of just over 100 km/h.
“This marks the start of a completely new era in European freight transport,” says project coordinator Franco Castagnetti of D'Appolonia, an engineering consultancy based in Italy. “The project runs on the same principle that a jumbo jet can carry more than a DC9 on the same leg of a journey. This is an incredible result for a relatively small project, and Europe should be proud of it.”
Combinations of two standard trains of 750 m and three trains of 500 m were tested. It took less than 15 minutes to couple them – a major step forward in efficiency – while savings of up to 30% in the transportation costs of freight were recorded.
The construction of expensive new rail infrastructure for these longer trains is not needed. Instead, different types of trains simply converge at a given hub, to be assembled into a Marathon-type train. This train would then travel to its destination (or destinations), to be disassembled and unloaded when and where required. By creating additional capacity on existing rail infrastructure, more road traffic can be shifted onto rail, thus easing road congestion and reducing noise, pollution and accidents.
Cooperation across the lines
The test marks a huge step towards a more competitive rail freight industry. But in order to make this a reality, the project team first had to address safety issues.
A new braking system was developed in order to ensure that the new super-train would comply with regulations, while a new computerised interface manages radio signals between the attached trains. Special new antennas were attached to ensure that messages could be sent uninterrupted between trains through tunnels, forests and mountains, and in every kind of weather.
The project team has packaged these innovations into a technology kit, which the partners hope to roll out for commercial application by 2016.
“These innovations are all fully aligned with existing signaling standards governing the European rail network,” adds Castagnetti. In fact, the Marathon train test demonstrated greater stability than expected, due in part to the active second locomotive in the middle of the train – providing increased driving safety.
“This opens up the possibility of new collaborative approaches,” Castagnetti says. “Two single trains could be loaded by two competing freight operators, in order to substantially reduce their transport costs. Economic necessity – this is the driver that has led to the co-loading of container vessels, cargo aircrafts and even passenger airlines. And we should be doing the same with rail freight.”