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Sven Wellbrock (VTG): One freight train can replace 52 trucks

Sven Wellbrock (VTG): One freight train can replace 52 trucks
photo: Archives/Sven Wellbrock (VTG): One freight train can replace 52 trucks
18 / 04 / 2022

Sven Wellbrock, CEO of logistics company VTG, calls on the traffic light coalition to give rail a push. Otherwise, the climate targets will not be met.

Freight traffic in Germany has doubled in the past 20 years. More and more goods are being transported over even longer distances, more than 70% of them by truck. The traffic light coalition wants to invest more money into the rail and increase the share of freight transport on tracks from around 18% today to a quarter by 2030. In addition, 75% of the rail network is to be electrified within eight years.

Mr. Wellbrock, you are the CEO of Europe's largest private rail freight car rental and rail logistics company. You must be looking forward to the future with great satisfaction. The traffic light government wants to shift freight traffic to rail on a grand scale, for climate and environmental reasons.

Of course, I'm delighted by the government's announcements. So far, the reality still looks quite different. Rail's share of transport volumes is still declining, and truck traffic is reaching new record levels. Therefore, it is now crucial to take concrete measures that are quickly derived from the traffic light targets. In our opinion, there are three key points: quick modernization and expansion of the infrastructure, creating fair competitive conditions for all modes of transport, and systematical digitizing of the railways. Only in this way can rail freight transport fully develop its potential for reducing CO2 emissions and contribute to achieving the climate targets.

The shift to rail has already been announced by many federal governments. It has never been implemented before.

To make it clear, without strong rail freight transport, it will not be possible to achieve the climate targets. The potential of rail is enormous: a single freight train can replace up to 52 trucks. It relieves the burden on the climate and the roads. What's more, over 90% of rail freight is already electric. There is no more environmentally friendly mode of transport. An even higher share of renewable energies in the electricity mix will improve the eco-balance in the medium term.

However, rail was primarily used to transport bulk goods such as iron ore or metals. Is rail flexible enough for the modern transport of goods?

We can meet the requirements of modern and more flexible goods transport with our solutions. On the one hand, these include modular systems for combined transport, which allow truck semi-trailers and containers to be integrated more efficiently into existing rail supply chains. But this also applies to digital solutions. With "traigo," our platform for digital rail freight transport, for example, real-time information on leased wagons and their cargo can already be accessed digitally today.

Diesel fuel for trucks is more expensive than ever. Doesn't that help the railroads?

Fuel prices are at record levels, but unfortunately, electricity prices are also rising in parallel, which massively affects us as a company. In some European countries, the cost of traction current has recently more than doubled. In the short term, the abolition of the EEG surcharge for rail freight is an effective measure in Germany. In the medium term, the eco-balance here could be improved by expanding renewable energies and a greener electricity mix. It would give us a competitive edge as the price of CO2 rises and thus contribute back to achieving the climate targets.

Don't you think it makes sense to increase the toll for trucks?

Yes, it does. The CO2-based truck toll could be a lever to achieve a faster modal shift to rail. Likewise, abolishing the tax privilege for diesel would have to be considered. However, in the end, it is up to policymakers to find the right mix of instruments to ensure fair competition between modes of transport.

What would the traffic lights have to do in detail to ensure they don't just remain a government announcement?

First, the attractiveness of combined transport, in which only short distances are covered by the truck and the long ones by rail, must be increased, for example, by renewing and improving the infrastructure. Second, there needs to be a standardized length and loading option for new semi-trailers so that they can be transported by rail at all. This and the introduction of Digital Automatic Coupling (DAK) across the board, as well as other digitization measures, will ensure seamless, safe, and reliable linking of freight cars and other modes of transport. But these projects require high investments. Without funding programs, DAK will not be able to succeed. Thirdly, we need the expansion of the European train control system ETCS. The networked rail transport of the future does not stop at a border with a neighboring country.

You also want rail lines to be expanded and more commercial areas to be retrofitted with rail connections. Based on experience to date, that will take many years. Is this strategy realistic in the first place?

I think so. If you want green rail freight, you have to give it the rails. And more connections for companies in the area are just necessary to be able to transport goods by rail. These investments are worthwhile. After all, promoting combined transport saves two million tons of CO2 emissions every year.

Trains, especially freight trains, are not only environmentally friendly. People living near congested routes, for example in the Rhine Valley, can tell you a thing or two about it. They will hardly be thrilled by more freight traffic.

Admittedly, noise has long been the Achilles' heel of rail freight. That's why all players in Germany have converted all wagons to quiet brakes by the end of 2020. Noise, as it used to be known, no longer exists. These and other measures, such as noise barriers, will further increase the acceptance of rail.

Citizens' initiatives in the Rhine Valley have just protested again about noise pollution. What do you tell them?

The reason here is that traffic volumes are increasing. Elsewhere, they are falling in some cases. We will not be able to resolve this conflict. We contribute to this issue by continuously developing and maintaining our rail cars. There is also a need for targeted noise abatement on busy routes.


Source: FrankfurterRundschau/Joachim Wille