In recent decades, North American railways have become increasingly reliable and economical providers of freight transportation service. They’ve expanded beyond their traditional dominance in hauling bulk goods like coal and grain over long distances and have made major gains in hauling manufactured goods since the invention of the intermodal container. Canada’s own CN is often considered the gold standard of freight railways worldwide. Meanwhile, in Europe, most bulk traffic uses the continent’s extensive inland waterway network, while lighter goods tend to move by truck.
Operating a successful freight railway presents very different challenges from passenger rail. The most important criteria of success for freight rail are cost, followed distantly by reliability. As long as their goods arrive within a few hours of promised and the bill is lower than if they had gone by truck, most shippers are quite pleased. Low cost is achieved by packing as much as possible into each freight car, and as many cars onto each train. Over the past several decades, North American freight railways have invested billions into improving their infrastructure to increase their competitiveness. Tracks have been upgraded to accommodate heavier freight cars, new technologies like locomotives distributed throughout the train have permitted longer trains, and bridges and tunnels have been raised to permit the stacking of two shipping containers on each car. European freight cars look like toys compared to their North American counterparts and double-stacked containers are unheard-of. The average European train is less than thirty cars long, while more than a hundred cars per train is the rule in North America.
North American passenger rail operators are often quite reasonably accused of trying to operate as if they were freight railways, using freight locomotives, freight track maintenance standards and freight signalling systems. Europeans make the same mistake in reverse, trying to emulate their success in passenger rail by emphasizing the importance of speed and punctuality, even going so far as to propose running freight trains on high-speed lines. This does nothing to aid in the critical factor of cost per ton-mile. The limited amount of existing freight rail traffic makes large investment seem excessive, just as the low ridership of North America’s weak passenger rail service is used to claim that passenger rail investment is uneconomic. Of course demand is low when the service is poor; demand won’t get any higher until the service is improved.
The poor state of European freight rail is a clear demonstration of the difficulty of operating both a successful passenger and freight railway. The needs of the two types of trains are simply too different. In fact, much of what makes European passenger rail so successful causes serious problems for freight. Heavy North American freight trains wreak havoc on high-quality track built for high-speed passenger service. Europe’s extensive track electrification offers enormous benefits, but it also limits overhead clearance for double-stack containers. High platforms at stations permit passengers to board without needing to climb stairs, speeding loading and providing wheelchair accessibility. Unfortunately, they can also restrict the width of passing freight trains. Some of the problems are simply the result of history, particularly in Britain where railways were built in the Victorian age to a very narrow loading gauge. New European lines are built to minimize curves, a big problem for high-speed passenger trains, but which comes at the cost of steeper grades that are a nightmare for heavy freight trains. European railways have been built over decades for passenger rail, not freight, so it isn’t surprising that European freight railways have struggled.
The needs of passenger and freight railways are so different that separation is likely the only solution. Of course, passenger trains and freight trains can still share tracks in many places, especially on low-density long distance passenger routes, but major passenger corridors should be separated from major freight routes so that they can be optimized for their respective users. Fortunately, the advent of intermodal shipping means that only a core of freight network is required; instead of picking up a few cars at each shipper, much freight traffic is now delivered by trucks to a relative handful of intermodal terminals. North America benefits from its legacy of competing private railways, which produced multiple parallel corridors that can now be divided between passengers and freight. The Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor has almost no freight traffic, as there is a parallel corridor owned by the freight railways and dedicated to their trains. Europe needs to embark on the arduous project of clearing a core network for heavy freight cars and double-stacked intermodal containers, likely after shifting most passenger trains to new high-speed lines.
Running a decent regional rail system in a North American city will require the exclusion of most freight trains from regional rail tracks. Local customers can have freight cars picked up and dropped off at night, when regional trains are not operating, but through freight traffic should use dedicated tracks. Especially for high-speed lines, the problems posed by North American heavy freight on track superelevation, track wear, platform height, and collision safety are too problematic for extensive track sharing. (More in future posts on sharing between freight and CityRail) Fortunately, many cities including Toronto have already shifted most of their freight rail traffic to bypass routes in the suburbs. Toronto’s main intermodal terminals are in Brampton and Vaughan and there are relatively few directly served industrial customers in the city centre. The Barrie and Stouffville lines, and most of the Richmond Hill, Lakeshore and Kitchener lines, have very little through freight traffic. The Milton line and segments of other routes would simply require separate tracks for freight traffic, either in the same corridor or on a new parallel route. Most freight traffic in the GTA would not interact with CityRail at all, while separating the two track users where they do interact would not be an insurmountable task.