Eurotunnel announced posted results this week showing that its revenue had increased by 16% to €845m, or £707m, with a 6% growth in traffic on its passenger shuttles, while freight traffic went up by 16%. Meanwhile, the number of people booking tickets for travel on Eurostar last year rose by 2% to 9.7m, while the average cost of air fares has risen by 41% due to inflation. Is this a trend away from flying towards using the train? If it is, then it can be one more piece of evidence in favour of High Speed 2. We all know it’s easier to transport a lot of stuff by train than it is by aeroplane, even if the stuff is on a lorry on a train (as it is on Eurotunnel’s trains), and that there is ever greater encouragement to transport freight in this way, esepcially intermodal. We’ve also all seen a trend towards greater use of high speed trains for long range inter-city passenger travel, and not just in mainland Europe, as the figures for the share of passenger traffic between London and Manchester show (85% of people used the railway in June 2010). Indeed, Eurostar’s share of the market to its mainland termini is on the up; Air France no longer both flying between Paris and Brussels, instead putting its passengers on Thalys services; and more and more passenger operators are looking to start up services to ever more destinations, even if Deutsche Bahn have had to put back their planned London-Frankfurt/Amsterdam services by two years. This doesn’t explain why more people are choosing to take their cars on the train however, unless the cross-channel ferries have also seen an upsurge in traffic, which suggests more people have chosen to take driving holidays. Whatever. The fact is this is all good – it looks like more people are coming around to the idea that using a train to get to where they want to go need not be a chore, given that trains are much nicer places to be than aeroplanes. For one thing, there’s no nasty recycled air giving me a headache. But the really good thing about more people using the train rather than flying is that we get ever closer to wiping the grin off the face of that of that profiteering leprechaun Michael O’Leary. And if that isn’t a noble cause, then I’m not sure what is.
Back in April, GB Railfreight found itself with too much work and not enough locomotives and so did what any rail company does when it is short of motive power; it hired extra. However, the extra motive power that it sourced caused quite a stir. To ensure sufficient Class 66s were available for its main line operations, for the twice daily run between North Blyth and Lynemouth for Alcan, GBRf hired in a Class 55, specifically the sole mainline registered unit, Royal Scots Grey. This was exciting for a whole lot of people, as it was the first time a Deltic had run in revenue earning service (i.e. not as a preserved locomotive) on the mainline since 1982. I’m fairly confident that Captain Deltic himself was so excited when he heard the news that he was bouncing around like Tigger. Not only that, but the news got widespread attention from the railway press, with many of the popular railway periodicals showing a picture of Royal Scots Grey hauling its load of freight wagons on the front of the first published issue after it started. The website run by the locomotive’s owners made the announcement on the 10th April. Now, given the affection felt for the Deltic, even if you aren’t a gricer, you’d have thought that seeing one back on the main line like this would have made the news pretty quickly, even if only in the “And finally…” section, which is after all where the news of the Deltic’s final withdrawal in 1982 ended up. So why is it that the BBC didn’t run the story until the 30th May? A bit too “geeky” for the bigwigs at the BBC? “Let’s have a bit of a giggle by running this story, we haven’t got anything better”? If the story was worth running, then why not run it once it was complete? Bah.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that, when it comes to rail travel (or at least inter-city rail travel) the United States is a freight oriented nation. While the suburban and metro rail operators around the major cities work fine, Amtrak has a poor reputation. Admittedly, it does not own any of the infrastructure it operates on, and so has to have its services scheduled around the freight trains of the Class I railroads on whose track it runs. And this is the first fundamental problem of running trains – the big freight operators own the railway infrastructure, unlike the system operated in the European Union, where infrastructure and operations have to be separated. Because of this, “Big Rail” makes it exceptionally difficult for any improvements in passenger rail. But, the other problem is this apparent overarching suspician of the train by significant sections of the population. We’ve coming up to November, and the next round of midterm elections. Since the election of Barack Obama, and the announcement of the stimulus package, which included a significant amount of federal funding for transport projects, among which was $8bn for the railways. But, given the nature of the American psyche, this sort of government intervention, even in a period of economic downturn, is evidence of “creeping socialism”, and thus to be fought tooth and nail. Thirty-eight individual state governerships are up for election in November, and the “Tea Party” movement are confident of getting a significant number of their Republican supporters into state houses, where they will have control over the state funding that is required for major projects (both state and federal agencies fund significant infrastructure projects), with the result that such projects would fail. Scott Walker, the Republican candidate in the Wisconsin election, has said that the stimulus money from the federal government should be used to repair the state’s roads before a penny is spent on improving the railways, while Meg Whitman, who is running in California, has been open in her criticism of the state’s planned high speed rail network. The irony is that her predecessor as the Republican candidate (and the current Governor of California), Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been a significant advocate of improvement of the railways. While we know that rail infrastructure is expensive (the East Side Access project in New York is now estimated at $6.3bn), why is it so difficult to see that getting cars off the road is a good thing? If for no other reason than it makes the journeys of those people that need to use the road quicker. I’m by no means a socialist, and I abhor the kind of big government that we’ve had in the UK for the last few years. But even I, slightly right of centre though I may be, can see the value in the government using public money to stimulate growth in the economy. Indeed, had it not been for the fact that the previous government (being a Labour government) completely wasted the country’s prosperity, I would have been championing their economic stimulus proposals in the recession. If businesses can’t obtain money to stimulate their own growth, then the government has to spend to do so. It’s a shame that the Tea Party is so caught up in its own hype (and its American, leave us alone mentality) that it can’t see the problem, and the solutions that are being proposed.
Ireland and New Zealand have much in common – both are economically developed, both are geographically isolated, and both have a larger, somewhat wealthier neighbour. In terms of the railways too, they are similar, with both using a rail gauge other than standard (1600mm in Ireland, 1067mm in New Zealand). Of course, because they are completely isolated geographically, this is not so much of a problem as it is unlikely they will ever interconnect with another country’s standard gauge operations. However, the two countries are polar opposites in how they actually use their rail networks, as the majority of traffic on Ireland’s (as we know) is passenger, while most of New Zealand’s capacity is used by freight. Indeed, other than the suburban networks in Auckland and Wellington, there are only four passenger services throughout the whole of the country, of which two are on the North Island and two on the South Island. Given the fact that in New Zealand population is concentrated in areas, this can be understood (although the lack of suburban services in the major cities of the South Island is perhaps more of a mystery), as New Zealand is a major exporter both of agricultural products, but also increasingly of energy products, which it produces in addition to that required for domestic consumption. Moving these bulk products out, and large quantities of goods that it imports, is most efficient, as everywhere, by train. Which (once again) makes you wonder why Ireland has steadily withdrawn from rail freight. Ireland is still a major exporter of primary products, particularly of metals, while its ports are major centres, both of imports to Ireland itself, but also as an entry to the EU. Ireland used to have a bustling rail freight operation. I genuinely don’t understand why it has withered away. Surely, if a country of similar size, like New Zealand is, can operate a thriving freight operation, Ireland can as well.
The Welsh Assembly Government has recently issued its new Rail Transport Plan, included in which is a proposal for a brand new freight terminal at Holyhead, the intention of which is to create a rail and sea freight network from Ireland to mainland Europe. Brilliant. All that would need therefore is for Iarnród Eireann to start running freight trains, and you could have a rail freight network running from the Baltic to the Atlantic. But they won’t. Over the past decade and a half or so, the amount of rail freight transported in Ireland has dwindled, to the consternation of such bodies as the Irish Exporters Association and the European Rail Freight Association. There are currently four regular freight flows operating on the Irish network – two liner trains (which operate between industrial areas and seaports), a timber train and a train from the Tara Mine carrying zinc and lead. Many other freight flows have long since been discontinued, the most recent being the bulk cement trains from Platin, near Drogheda, which ended at the end of 2009. While trains have stopped running, freight infrastructure has been dismantled and redeveloped, while Iarnród Eireann have stated that there are as many as 10,000 lorries a day entering Dublin Port. Seemingly it never occured to them that, had they not cut a swathe through their own rail freight infrastructure, there might not be so much of a need for 10,000 lorries a day to enter the country through Dublin alone. In addition, 10 million tonnes per year of freight come through the port of Foynes in County Limerick, all of which has to be transported by road, as the extant railway line to the port is mothballed. This could be transported to freight hubs around the country, significantly reducing the amount of road travel required for transport, as could the kind of bulk, internal freight workings that move primary products around the country for processing. This is what the European Rail Freight Association want to see happen, as they would like an opportunity to enter the market. Since 2007, the EU has liberalised the rail freight market in Europe (as it has now also done with international passenger services), meaning open-access operators can run their services anywhere. However, Ireland has received an exemption from these requirements, which has been explained away as due to the insualr nature of the railways – Ireland is physically seperate from the rest of the European network, and so would be a small, isloated part. However, if the Irish Government and Iarnród Eireann don’t want to try and make freight work, why not let someone else have a go? If an outside enterprise is willing to invest the time and capital in try to build up freight operations, surely that is a good thing because it would then potentially encourage further investment. If they fail, then they fail, and no taxpayers money has been wasted. Of course, the flip side would then be “what if they succeed?”. Iarnród Eireann would end up looking pretty stupid if an outsider came in and made a success of something that the state rail operator had run down for years claiming there was no money in. It’s like I’ve said – Iarnród Eireann simply doesn’t seem to like running trains.
Although 4ft 8½in (1435mm) is the standard gauge as devised by George Stephenson and adopted by the first great railway nation, Great Britain, that doesn’t mean that it is the “standard” around the world. As I’ve spoken of often, Ireland has a gauge of 5ft 3in (1600mm) (ironically adopted in the same legislation that made 1435mm the standard for Great Britain), while many other countries operate trains using different gauges. However, this makes interoperability a potential problem. Of course, for a self-contained system like Ireland’s, there is no problem, as it has no land links with any other rail network. But, what about bordering countries that have a break of gauge? An example here is Spain and France – France’s entire railway network is standard gauge, while in Spain the ordinary network operates on the Iberean gauge of 5 ft 5⅔in (1668mm). For years this prevented through running of trains from France to Spain, with passengers having to change trains to complete journeys. Of course today this is less of a problem with the advent of high speed rail – to allow through running, Spain’s AVE network is built to standard gauge, allowing it to connect directly to the TGV network, and thence to the rest of Europe’s high speed railways. Of course, this means that constructing high speed rail for Spain is more expensive than for France, because it has to construct entire routes, rather than just the long, straight high speed parts between cities as France has been able to do. This is the same as Japan has had to do with the Shinkansen, which is also standard gauge, whereas its traditional rail network has a gauge of 3ft 6in (1067mm). Of course, in Japan break of gauge journeys are not as difficult as perhaps elsewhere, given the immense punctuality of the Japanese public transport system (to which the Top Gear boys will be able to attest). Nevertheless, it is still an inconvenience for people to have to change trains because of different gauges. But, it is also simply too expensive and difficult to do so nowadays, as there are other things to concentrate on. That being said, in countries where the problem exists, such as Australia, it is something that causes difficulty, particularly in freight movement across the country. It is for this that successive Australian governments have undertaken gauge conversion projects over the decades, allowing at least for dual gauge operation.
Not the Channel Tunnel of course, because that’s been done. The tunnel I’m thinking of is the Irish Sea tunnel that would potentially connect Great Britain and Ireland. But, you’ll be aware of the problems:
- Ireland is a lot further away from Great Britain than France is, and so would likely need a longer tunnel.
- Britain and Ireland have different rail gauges (4ft 8.5in and 5ft 3in)
The dream that most people think of is a direct high speed rail line between London and Dublin which would, if a sufficiently straight route of around 550km was used, take about two and a half hours. Except that would be really fricken expensive. So, my idea would be to build a standard gauge route between Holyhead in Anglesey and Dún Laoghaire in County Dublin – although these are small stations, they both have direct connections to their respective capital cities, but have it used as a shuttle service between the two, both for passengers and freight. This is where further investment would have to come in though, because the tunnel would need to be used for rail freight as well as road freight on shuttle trains (which is the case with the Channel Tunnel). Dún Laoghaire would need to be expanded into a major railhead, linking both with the road network and the port (which would need to be expanded), but also with the Irish rail network so that freight can be easily transferred by rail to the rest of the country. In addition, the passenger line would also need to be improved to allow increased frequency to Dublin, together with a need to link the Dublin-Rosslare line to the rest of the network (perhaps via Kildare), so that passengers would not need to go via Dublin to get to their destinations.
“But hold on” I hear you thinking, “there’s already a massive container port at Rosslare that is already linked to the railway network. Why not build the tunnel to there?”. This is true, but after Bray the line to Rosslare is single track with passing loops, which is not conducive to the kind of intensive service that would be needed. The same is true of the station on the other side of the Irish Sea, Fishguard Harbour, which is equally poorly served. In addition, although there is a line in situ that connects Rosslare to Waterford and Limerick, this again is single track. In economic terms, given that the line as far as Dún Laoghaire is already used by DART, it is of a high enough quality in terms of the track and the signalling (and, more importantly, is already double track), it would cost much less to simply lay a new double track route between Dún Laoghaire and Kildare, than it would to double track both the lines from Rosslare to Dublin and Limerick.