Freight traffic: permanent congestion on the rails

Berlin, Frankfurt Jes-Christian Hansen, Managing Director of Habema Futtermittel GmbH in Hamburg, has never seen anything like it. The company has been regularly transporting animal feed by train since 2012 – from Heidenau to Hamburg and vice versa. “The last six months have been difficult to bear,” he says. “I have a big neck.” From 2012 to 2017, a total of three trains failed at Habema. “Now there are two or three trains a week.”

Christian Stavermann, managing director of EGOO Eisenbahngesellschaft Ostfriesland-Oldenburg mbH, also reports on chaotic conditions. Especially the so-called regular train from the Emsland to Ludwigshafen is a problem. “As soon as we arrive at the destination terminal with a delay of more than four hours, we miss the loading slot there and are no longer unloaded. In other words, a complete train circuit is canceled. “

There is chaos in the German rail network. The reason is the construction sites and the associated chaos in the traffic planning of the responsible DB Netz AG, a subsidiary of the railway company. Even as the sole owner of Deutsche Bahn, the federal government has not yet been able to modernize the network.

For years, the share of rail in freight transport has remained at 19 percent, and has recently dropped to 18 percent. It should increase to 25 percent by 2030. But reality shows: there is a huge problem in freight transport.

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So much so that even the sister company DB Cargo felt compelled a few days ago to inform its customers by email about the “very tense operational situation in the DB Cargo network”. The balancing act between driving and building in order to advance the necessary renovations and the expansion of the infrastructure is currently all facing major challenges, according to the letter. “Delays and train cancellations are to be expected.”

The problems that DB Cargo describes are “only the tip of the iceberg,” says Habema Managing Director Hansen. After all, DB Cargo only has a market share of around 50 percent, the rest is allotted to competitors, who are also suffering. It is not the competitors’ access to the railways that is the problem, it is the inefficiencies in the network, says Peter Westenberger, managing director of the European Railways Network (NEE).

Diversions over several hundred kilometers

Trains from Dresden to Hamburg would be diverted to Hamburg via Magdeburg and Braunschweig or via Hildesheim, Nienburg and Rothenburg, Hansen describes the situation. Instead of 500, the trains would travel up to 750 kilometers and thus emit correspondingly more carbon dioxide. “What we are experiencing now has nothing to do with the energy or transport transition,” he says. Especially at the former German-German border, freight traffic is congested – 32 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Deutsche Bahn is trying to smooth things over. “We have to build, there is no getting around it,” a spokesman explains when asked. The federal government provides the railway company with billions every year for the infrastructure, which the subsidiary DB Netz is installing. This year it is the record amount of 12.7 billion euros, in 2020 it was a good twelve billion euros.

Last year, however, the construction boom on the tracks was not so noticeable. Because of the pandemic, there were far fewer passenger trains than usual. So there was plenty of space for the freight trains on the diversions. But this year, passenger traffic is almost back to normal. And he has right of way.

Since passenger and freight trains use the same network, things can get tight very quickly. Especially when the tightly timed and already complicated construction site planning is additionally burdened by disruptions to signals, switches or police operations. Then the artificial intelligence with which DB Netz works in route planning will also reach its limits.

Experienced planners are particularly important for construction sites, says Hansen, because only they can optimally take complex construction instructions into account. It then comes down to maximum speeds, maximum weights, partial and full closures and other parameters that quickly complicated business.

There is no quick solution to the bottlenecks; in the short term, they will even increase – at DB Cargo and also among competitors. Because construction sites are usually completed in December to match the timetable change. In other words: In the next few weeks the construction crews will step on the gas again, which will probably result in even more temporary road closures.

An extremely unsatisfactory situation for companies like Habema. The company has built its own cargo handling facility, the company plans to open another one this year and increase the amount transported by rail from 1.5 to 2.5 million tons per year. But the major network construction site is slowing expansion.

Outdated infrastructure slows down expansion plans

In addition, the data information from DB Netz is only sparse, complains Hansen. He has now equipped his own trains with GPS: “At least we know where our trains are currently stuck and can inform our employees. A shift schedule is completely pointless at the moment. “

Trains no longer arrive at 6 a.m., but often only at 4 p.m. Operations can only be maintained because of the high flexibility of the employees. A train from Dresden to Krefeld would currently take 22 hours – and thus three instead of a driver and several locomotives. “It’s just a cramp,” Hansen complains.

EGOO managing director Stavermann calculates that his company lost sales of almost 100,000 euros in October alone. A train from Rotterdam to Vienna had been standing in Lohr am Main for over 48 hours last week because the train driver had to call it a day because of a construction site and he simply couldn’t find a replacement. “This doubled the travel time – and the loading units arrived in Austria two days too late,” reports Stavermann.

“Everyone wants to get on the rails, but it doesn’t work,” he criticizes. He asked himself how politicians would achieve their goal of increasing the share of rail freight transport to 25 percent if the network were to collapse now. If passenger trains are to run every half hour, as planned in Germany, it will be even tighter for freight transport. “How is it all supposed to work?”

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