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Rail freight in France set to overtake road transport

3 December 2008 – Legislation proposed by the French Government will increase the percentage of freight that is not transported by road from 14% to 25% by 2012 and reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Given the chronic congestion of the road networks and the rising cost of fuel, the transport of goods by rail is a competitive alternative to road transport.

In addition to the deregulation of passenger transport, European Union authorities have voted for the progressive liberalisation of freight transport, starting with international transport between Member States.

Since 2003, independent operators have been allowed to operate on French soil. The management of freight links and rail infrastructre is the responsibility of the Réseau ferré de France (RFF – French Rail Network), which issues operating and safety licences to transport operators and provides manpower training. Railway freight transport has been deregulated since 31 March 2006, and a Commission de Régularisation des Activités Ferroviaires (CRAF – Railway Regulatory Commission) is currently being set up, which will be responsible for ensuring open access for all railway operators.

Private operators have also emerged alongside the traditional national operators in the specialised transport of chemical products, foodstuffs (cereals) and bulk loads (cement, gravel and iron). The new operators are often subsidiaries of traditional operators, for example DB Schenker (Germany), Euro Cargo Rail (subsidiary of the British EWSI group), BLS Cargo (Switzerland), CFF Cargo (subsidiary of Swiss railways), CFL Cargo (Luxembourg railways and ArcelorMittal), VFLI (subsidiary of SNCF of France), Veolia Cargo (subsidiary of Veolia Transport), Rail 4 Chem (BASF of Germany), and Europorte 2 (subsidiary of Eurotunnel). These operators are also developing their activities in the part-loads market, which provides an alternative to HGV goods transport.

Combined rail-road – or multimodal – transport is particularly developed in the container sector. The transfer of HGV trucks onto rail networks is expanding with the development of wide-load (B+) capacity on major lines and the introduction of specialised rolling stock using traditional technology (German and Swiss rolling roads) or new technology, such as the Modalohr (Lorry Rail) trailer wagon. Classic combined transport is present in France through Naviland (ex-CNC) and Novatrans.

These technological developments are supported by major infrastructure works, such as the opening of the Perpignan-Luxembourg rail link and the Swiss AlpTransit project, which will provide better north-south rail links though the Lötschberg and Gotthard transalpine railway tunnels. There will also be additional, improved connections across the Alps from north to west and south to east, with wide-load adjacent tunnels between Lyons and the new entrance at Modane. In addition, the planned Lyons-Turin railway tunnel will provide a key link in the European railway transport network, connecting the regions lying between Barcelona (in Spain) and Budapest (in Hungary).

The French Government is aiming to attract flows of freight traffic to new specialised links that connect ports with the surrounding areas by opening up the transport hubs in ports to the general rail network, and by modernising fans of tracks and branch lines. These will be operated by companies that are authorised to run on plain track (including Rail 4 Chem, Veolia and VFLI). The line that connects with the docks at Le Havre is currently being modernised, for example, which will enable users to avoid Rouen and the narrow-load Seine corridor, as well as the bottlenecks at the Paris shunting yards.

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