Wednesday , 29 May 2024
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Global Economy

Travelers fear disadvantages from freight trains

Longer waiting times could soon be expected for train passengers. The Federal Government intends to give priority to energy transport by rail for six months. This emerges from a paper by the Federal Ministries of Economics and Transport from the weekend. "The aim is to ensure the operation of power plants, refineries, power grids and other vital operations," it says.

Freight trains should then be given priority over passenger trains. Namely when they have loaded coal, gas, oil or transformers – in other words, everything that keeps power plants and factories running. Because of the low water levels on the Rhine, freight can hardly get through there.

Will the trains be even less punctual for passengers?

"We must therefore prioritize transport in a considered and careful manner in order to ensure the energy supply of the citizens," emphasizes Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing. If in doubt, passenger transport would have to wait, explained the FDP politician. Freight transport has usually been subordinate to passenger transport. This could now be reversed with the new regulation.

Does that mean even longer waiting times for train passengers? According to the government paper, delays for passengers should be avoided “as far as possible”. It could help that the 9-euro ticket campaign expires at the end of August and the summer travel wave is gradually dying down. Others, on the other hand, see no relaxation on the rails, even after the end of the 9-euro ticket.

Passenger records on the train

As early as May there were passenger records in long-distance transport, says Dennis Junghans from the Allianz pro Schiene interest group when asked by According to information from the industry, not all possibilities have been exhausted to lengthen existing freight trains or to run more at night.

In any case, not all transport can be shifted to rail in the short term, because wagons are scarce throughout Europe. Neither the federal group nor its goods competitors are currently registering a higher demand for energy transport. "The ordinance to prioritize supply-relevant trains is a sensible precautionary measure by the federal government," says Deutsche Bahn. "It remains to be seen whether it will have to come into play at all."

Lots of delays already

There are currently more trains on the road than ever before. At the same time, however, construction is going on at a record level so that the rail network, which is in need of rehabilitation, can hold out. In addition, masses of 9-euro ticket customers are flooding the regional trains; the train has to use additional staff to speed up boarding and alighting. Less than 60 percent of long-distance trains were recently on time – and that includes delayed departures of up to six minutes. In regional transport too, there are exceptionally few punctual trains at less than 90 percent.

Goods trains are also late. Because at times more than 200 freight trains stood still, the industry has been complaining about the railway for months. In addition, there are now two crises at once: the energy crisis as a result of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and the climate crisis in the form of drought and low water in the Rhine.

How much coal, oil and gas goes by rail?

As the market leader, Deutsche Bahn runs 50 trains a week, each carrying 3,000 tons of hard coal. A large coal-fired power plant like Gelsenkirchen-Scholven needs 20,000 tons a day under full load. According to Deutsche Bahn, it transports up to 40 million tons every year. Compared to the 20,000 cargo trains in total, the 50 coal trains are not that significant, even if their number were doubled. Coal can also be easily stockpiled – so it doesn't necessarily have to go to the power plant at certain times of the day.

However, the majority of all goods traffic in Germany is still transported by road. In 2020, freight trains accounted for only 18 percent of all freight traffic. Trucks were responsible for around 73 percent. Inland vessels for 6.9 percent. According to the Federal Statistical Office, a total of 3.1 billion tons of goods were transported by truck in 2021. Railways transported 357.6 million tons last year and inland waterways 195.1 million tons.

criticism of the regulation

The Pro Bahn passenger association does not think much of priority for trains with coal, oil, gas or transformers. "No local or long-distance train should be canceled for these transports," demands chairman Detlef Neuss. All the problems of the railways in Germany were revealed in the 9-euro ticket campaign. "In the last three decades we have slept on the expansion and even criminally dismantled infrastructure." More delays now? That would drive people off the trains back into the car, says Neuss. "That's exactly what we don't want."

Junghans from Pro-Rail Alliance sees the regulation as a purely precautionary measure. It is questionable how many energy transports actually went by rail in the end. Even if, in the worst case, a freight train could run in front of an ICE, he assumes that the problem can be solved with a sense of proportion. The fact is that the rail network is already overloaded in some places.

"Bad planning falls on our feet"

The poor planning of the past now fell on "us" on our feet. If you had an efficient infrastructure, then you wouldn't have to have a debate about which trains could overtake each other. The rail network in Germany has shrunk by 15 percent since 1995, but freight traffic has increased significantly. Junghans criticizes that more and more trains are traveling on fewer and fewer rails.

Peter Westenberger, Managing Director of the European Railways Network (NEE), told that the federal government's plans could prove to be a brainchild. If trains with diesel, petrol or kerosene could drive through without stopping, all other types of transport would have major problems. The chaos on the rails would then be really big. Because the other trains can simply move to the left or right to the side, that's hardly possible.

Alternatives for priority of energy transport

As for passenger transport, timetables for rail freight are also issued by DB Netz well in advance in order to coordinate all trains on the network, says Westenberger. So if you want to drive at short notice, it could be that the rails are already occupied. Then the trains would have to take detours. There are differences between the various forms of energy: coal transports are planned for the long term. The mineral oil industry, on the other hand, makes use of more flexible and short-term freight transport, which is why it often doesn't get quite as good routes as others with a longer timetable.

Westenberger points out that companies can already have their freight trains pulled ahead of them. However, you would have to pay a higher price for the so-called express routes. The mineral oil and coal companies could now get the use of such as a gift.

Too few freight cars

In addition, there is a problem with a limited number of freight cars in the oil industry, says Westenberger. The freight wagons belonged to the companies themselves. A few years ago, there were bottlenecks in freight wagons when the Rhine was also low and transport had to be shifted from inland waterways to rail. At that time, the industry should have decided to get more cars, he criticizes.

The ministries are currently concentrating primarily on wanting to make the trains faster. But that doesn't go far enough, you have to look at all the options. In this way, Deutsche Bahn can consider which construction sites can be postponed. Westenberger also advocates a safe passage. This means that more can be transported in one train journey. However, other trains with containers could also take a longer detour and free up the rails for energy transport. The additional costs that they would incur as a result could then be offset by the shippers, who can then use the routes that have been freed up.

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