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Bringing more trains on track: an analysis of challenges and improvement opportunities for European network capacity planning

Increasing the railway traffic is one of the most effective ways for reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector. The EU aims at doubling rail freight traffic and even tripling high-speed passenger traffic by 2050 (Compared to 2015). The German target of doubling all passenger rail traffic by 2030 (Compared to 2019) relies heavily on the implementation of the so-called “Deutschlandtakt”. Through improved train frequency, key routes in long-distance traffic will be connected in a half-hourly cycle. This also means a rethinking of traditional planning principles: while timetabling traditionally followed the existing network capacity, the process of capacity planning will soon be guided by the track access demand. Together with a rigorous network expansion, optimising the use of existing network capacity will be key for achieving the ambitious traffic targets.

In this context, civity was asked by Network Rail to conduct a comprehensive benchmarking. In that study, approaches to network capacity planning of eight Western European IMs were collected, analysed and compared.
The results showed that the IMs are faced with a similar fundamental challenge: planning, decision-making and prioritisation of different capacity demands (i.e., passenger/freight traffic and track works) is often quite inefficient and unreliable. This leads to complex processes, the loss of valuable network capacity and increased costs.

At the centre of the analysis are the planning processes at the interface of time-table and access planning, where different demands for network capacity are prioritised and allocated. This prioritisation mostly happens based on qualitative and experience-based criteria and lacks a quantified cost-benefit-analysis for different scenarios and their effects. However, the development and implementation of such models has large potentials for more rationale decision-making.

Another challenge are the different market needs of passenger and freight train operators, which are not adequately considered in today’s planning processes. In a European initiative, a new concept for capacity planning is developed that includes an improved differentiation between the market needs of passenger and freight operations as well as more long-term planning horizon and a harmonisation of planning processes across Europe.

In most of the analysed IMs, a major reason for inefficient capacity planning are insufficiently sophisticated digital planning systems. Due to historically evolved system landscapes, there is a lack of consistent data formats, aligned and automated interfaces as well as state-of-the-art features like automised detection of conflicting capacity allocations. Nearly all IMs currently work on fixing those insufficiencies by either introducing a new system or by improving existing ones. Top priority is the creation of system coherence so that network data is available throughout all different planning systems.

As IMs have a relatively high number of older employees, adopting to new, modern and digital ways of working and planning procedures is particularly challenging. Therefore, proactive change management is key for ensuring the success of introducing or improving digital planning systems. Also, another organisational challenge of many IMs is the high amount of tacit knowledge when it comes to planning principles and procedures. Especially in the light of potential large-scale retirement cycles, documenting that tacit knowledge in digital systems becomes increasingly important.

Among others, those insights enabled civity to identify good practices and derive recommendations for improving processes, digital systems and the organisational setup at Network Rail. These have the potential to further increase the attractiveness, safety and performance of rail traffic. Only then, rail traffic can play its important role in climate politics and achieve its key target of bringing more trains on track.