On August 12 last year, groundwater broke into one of two new rail tunnels under construction close to the German town of Rastatt, which is situated on the very busy Karlsruhe to Basel mainline – the busiest double track mainline anywhere in Europe.

The tunnel collapse happened at the only point the new tunnels cross under the existing line and significant earth movement on the surface resulted.

An almost eight-week closure of the Rastatt tunnel followed, severely disrupting north-south rail freight traffic in Europe.

To mark the one-year re-opening of the Karlsruhe – Basle line, Europe’s leading rail freight organisations have come together to highlight the lessons learnt and positive steps taken to ensure such an event won’t happen again, while also acknowledging the need for further action.

The European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), Network of European Railways (NEE) and the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport said that all sides have committed to tackling the challenges facing rail freight.

As a result of this collaborative effort:

  • English has been adopted as the main language of communication between infrastructure managers during international disruptions. At least one English speaking dispatcher in national traffic control centres will be guaranteed for every shift from 2020;
  • Off-the-shelf rerouting options and traffic management scenarios that minimise disruptions are being prepared, including information on technical parameters and other operational requirements;
  • One infrastructure manager will take the lead coordinating the international cooperation with other infrastructure managers and in managing the available international re-routing capacity;
  • Fast reaction times will ensure that relevant reroutings and mitigation decisions should be taken within the first 24 hours of a disruption. Within 36 hours of an incident taking place, a rough indicative timetable should be provided;
  • New rules will avoid ambiguity and discrimination when it comes to allocating capacity on disrupted lines and guarantee a share of capacity between annual timetable traffic and ad-hoc traffic.

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All of these changes should be adopted by infrastructure managers from the start of the 2019 timetable, in line with the European Handbook for International Contingency Management.

Nevertheless, the three associations have pointed to further challenges that need addressing. Namely:

  • The development of contingency management procedures for incidents that last less than three days;
  • Off-the-shelf rerouting options should include an estimation of the capacity of trains that can be absorbed. Where the re-routing options provide insufficient capacity and are incompatible, investment in the infrastructure should be identified as a priority;
  • Rail operators should identify and put in place their own contingency management plans to ensure back-up options in the event of disruptions;
  • Lowering the current B1 level language requirement for train drivers and accelerating the move towards English as the main operational language;
  • The replacement of telephone conferences and complicated communication chains by internet-based written communication;
  • The issue of liability must be addressed, not only to resolve the still open compensation payments expected by those who have been impacted by the Rastatt disaster, but also to ensure that in the future an infrastructure manager’s liability is covered under an insurance policy.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the three associations said: “Never again must the closure of a small stretch of railway line lead to such chaos and wide-reaching economic damage.”

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