In November last year Seat undertook a trial involving the despatch of 224 new cars from its plant at Martorell, near Barcelona, to Fuersterhausenin Germany, using a standard gauge block train. The potential economical benefits are clear if existing disadvantages can be overcome according to Manuel Medina, Seat’s logistics director.
Previously, finished vehicles had to use a broad gauge link directly from Matorell to the border at Port Bou, where a break in gauge necessitated transhipment to allow onward transport through France and Germany.
However, last November’s trial saw 22 wagons with a combined length of 602 metres travel into Germany.Transfesa provided the logistics, although the train itself was loaded at Autoterminal, in the port of Barcelona, since standard gauge tracks have yet to reach Matorell.
According to Medina, the trial highlighted inherent strengths and weaknesses in the current set-up.
On the upside, the previous 500-metre long train limit can now be exceeded, meaning more economical block trains can be rostered. Even when having to pay tolls to use the new ElPertústunnelbeneaththePyrenees, the cost is more than offset by the savings made by not having to tranship vehicles at the border.
However, there are also disadvantages. The most obvious is the high cost of road haulage between Martorell and Autoterminal. Also, stevedores at the port have to be engaged to load the trains. On the trial, this cost was assumed by the port authority, but would have to be met by Seat in future. Bizarrely, Spanish National Railways (Renfe) also insisted on rostering two locomotives for the 900-tonne train, despite the fact that double-heading in Spain is only necessary on trailing loads in excess of 1,100 tons. This effectively pushed up transport costs by 3%, although Medina pointed out that nobody has so far explained why two locomotives were needed in the first place.
“We need to reflect and do the numbers to see whether it is economically viable [to operate this service on a regular basis],but it's clear that the objective of Seat is to have [standard gauge] tracks linking our production plant. Having to load vehicles outside the plant doesn't seem to add any value,” he said.
Currently, the Martorell plant uses a narrow gauge connection to send finished vehicles to the port, leaving a broad gauge connection to ship vehicles to Port Bou for onward dispatch to the rest of Europe. However, it is calculated that extending the new standard gauge line from the port to Martorell could double rail's share of vehicle logistics to 30%.
Doubts, however, exist as to the ability of the line north of the Spanish border to handle increased freight traffic. The existing double-track line linking Perpignan and Montpellier is due to be reinforced by the opening of a new high-speed line in 2020. However, a new container terminal in the port of Barcelona is expected to generate additional short-term rail traffic, which could absorb current capacity. A new by-pass is also due to enter service between Montpelier and Nimes as of 2015, although the Ferrmed Association predicts rail lines in Southern France may well have reached saturation point by 2018.
Senior officials from the Spanish Ministry of Public Works and senior representatives from the Catalan Generalitat visited the Martorell rail link in June last year