Europe has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and massively until 2030 and beyond. This will only work if many more goods are carried by cargo trains, downsizing or at
least preventing trucking from increasing further. An ambitious undertaking in view of the rather poor state of rail transportation and its questionable reputation.
It needs entrepreneurial spirit, audacity as well es joint industry and public efforts to accomplish the long sought-after U-turn. Savior could be the aerospace industry.
Happy faces at the Ecole Central Lyon last Thursday where six scholars of different universities and key managers of the rail transport industry inked a pact, kicking off a “modal shift” project.
The contract, the first of this kind in the EU, stipulates a close cooperation between the Ecole Centrale Lyon and Berlin’s Technical University on the one side and on the other hand leading
actors of the rail cargo industry.
Their bond outlines initial projects, codifying the contributions of each individual partner. In a second step, enterprises engaged in aviation are invited to join the club, bringing in their specific knowhow, enabling mutual learning and problem-solving initiatives.
One of the drivers pushing the issue forward is Peter Reinshagen, Managing Director of Paris-based Ermewa SA, a European heavyweight in leasing services for railcars and tank containers. He set high goals by stating that “we intend to revolutionize transportation by reinventing the railway business.” There is no option to this doing should ecological goals set by the EU be met, “which we as members of the railway industry feel deeply committed to,” the manager emphasized.
However, this will fall short should the rail system continue doing business as usual, lack basic innovations and fail to become rapidly much more efficient.
Waste of resources
A major obstacle, influencing almost all processes within the rail-based supply chain, is the lack of digitalization. This is a key issue that must be changed immediately, demanded the experts. “We still miss data exchange, leading to a lack of transparency and operational disruptions.” According to Mr Reinshagen, technical checks, maintenance work for prolonging the operational life of railcars, including the removal of defective railcars through repair or exchange takes – no typo! – between 70 and 90 days on average. During this time, a railcar is out of service, becoming a cost factor instead of operating and generating revenues.
His testimony was confirmed by CEO Johann Feindert of railcar lessor GATX and representatives of the Ecole Centrale Lyon, one of the world’s leading scientific-technical research and teaching institutions. On average, railcars are 20 percent of their lifetime out of service. Quite a waste of resources!
The list of shortcomings within the rail industry tabled in Lyon was long. Damage reports are not digitalized, the spare parts management is rather inconsistent, paperwork still prevails. However, the most sobering factor is probably the lack of desire for system improvement within the rail companies, coupled with the inertia of unions.
Fact is that the deficits have long been known, and employees have familiarized themselves with the diverse insufficiencies. This seems to be the greatest stumbling block, torpedoing radical changes as suggested and claimed by the experts participating in the Lyon meeting.
Impulses from other industries are welcome
But there is a ray of hope, coming from outside the railway world: Aviation.
This was indicated by the speaker of Ecole Central Lyon, Jean-Pierre Bertoglio and strongly supported by scholar Markus Hecht of the Technical University of Berlin.
In their presentations both lauded the air industry as trailblazer for technical achievements and role model for the rail industry. Particularly impressive is that all processes are constantly monitored and documented. “The aircraft engineers know days or even weeks in advance, if a turbine, cockpit instrument or the brake linings are reaching their service limits,” Mr Bertoglio emphasized, pointing at scientific survey conducted at his university in close cooperation with his Berlin colleagues.
Radical modal shift is needed
A statement that was underscored by Mr Reinshagen. “Airlines, aircraft producers and maintenance providers have set up a state-of-the-art supply chain, enabling them to jointly solve technical issues in a very short time, benefitting all players, particularly passengers and cargo actors that depend on reliable and safe air transportation. They ought to be our benchmark in our demanding journey to revolutionize the entire rail cargo system.”
Having said this he emphasized that a radical modal shift is needed. Rail transports ought to increase from currently 18 percent of the entire tonnage transported within Europe to 30 percent by 2030.
Air could also learn from rail
A highly ambitious aim but without alternative because trucking has reached its limits, seen by the constant jams on European highways, that increasingly impede the timely delivery of goods and massively pollute the air.”
But it’s not a one-way street. Aviation can also benefit from rail, Mr Reinshagen stated:
“Aircraft leasing doesn’t sufficiently take maintenance data into account. The railcar leasing has a know-how to combine leasing and maintenance, that could be interesting to study. In addition, polyvalence of technicians in railcar maintenance is something aviation might be interested in as both activities are performed under very stringent safety requirements.”
The Ermewa helmsman’s final words before signing the cooperation treaty: “European rail transportation needs to become integrated into global supply chains and much more agile and competitive. We would love to win this challenge by reinventing the railway industry in close cooperation with aviation and scientific institutions.”