As things stand at present, the European rail infrastructure is not a single homogeneous network, but instead it is composed of different national railway systems with very varied technical standards, most notably at the level of the infrastructure itself, of the electrical power supply system, and of the system of safety and control.
For CT, an UN/ECE general agreement known as the “European Agreement on Important International Combined Transport Lines and Related Installations” was signed in 1993 by more than 20 European states. In this Agreement, minimum standards were set for international CT lines. These should be taken into account when existing railway lines are upgraded or when new lines are created.
Parameters of the infrastructure
Most of the national networks for the transport of passengers and freight were conceived at the same time. Below is a summary of the most characteristic parameters of road-rail CT:
The gauge is one of the essential criteria which must be taken into consideration when road vehicles or their loading units use rail in the framework of CT. Indeed, CT involves specific gauges and is therefore only viable on previously measured sections. It is possible to exceed the gauge, depending on the type of loading unit used; the upper limit for the height and width of the loading units is specified in the “rail gauge”. This is restricted on some lines because of tunnels, bridges and catenaries, and in some cases even by the roofs of railway stations.
The gauge of all the loading units used in CT is “coded” on a yellow plate that informs the railwayman of the dimensions of the unit. The capital letters “C” for containers and swap bodies and “P” for semi-trailers in pocket wagons are used to differentiate between loading units.
As a rule, there are few restrictions for containers and swap bodies. Even the Alpine tunnels have been enlarged over the past few years to allow the semi-trailers used in CT to pass through them. The greatest problem is caused by the so-called “jumbo” containers, and generally speaking, the megatrailers. The rolling road, on which complete lorries can be loaded, only exists in those countries whose network has a sufficient gauge.
Vertical and horizontal alignment (gradients and rays)
These parameters affect the construction of rolling stock (speed) and the criteria in respect of weight and permitted power on the infrastructure.
There are certain parameters needing to be complied with regarding maximum tonnage per axle and the speed of the train. At present, trains moving at 120kph can only bear loads of 20t per axle. The ideal situation would be to have a payload per axle of 22.5 tonnes for a speed of 120kph.
Most European rail corridors are electrified but with totally different supply systems; this represents a major obstacle to the development of international transport in CT. The progressive use of multi-current locomotives compatible with more than one system is a way of getting round this obstacle.
Safety and control systems
Each country has developed its own system of signalling and communication on its own infrastructure. Each time a CT train crosses a national frontier, the train locomotive must be changed – unless the locomotive is adapted to several systems – in order for it to be compatible with the system of the country being crossed.
The European Commission and the principal suppliers of railway technology have developed the ERTMS system (European Rail Traffic Management System). This system has been conceived in order to harmonise the current systems and it will be put in place gradually over the next few years. The ERTMS will be applied de facto in respect of the new infrastructures. On the other hand, for all the old ones this will be on a case by case basis.
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