The freight train seeks to triple its share until 2030 after five years stagnant

The Yixinou freight train connects southern China with Madrid. / ARCHIVE

It suffered several ups and downs and has hardly improved (3.6%) despite the arrival of private operators in 2007, whose weight in trips reaches 41%

Jose Antonio Bravo

The injection of European funds may end up achieving what has seemed like a national utopia for more than five years, in contrast to the reality it entails in the EU: that rail freight transport begins to take off so that it is seen as a reliable alternative to its road competitors. In fact, the main aspiration of the sector is to achieve true intermodality, as is the case in other countries on the continent.

Brussels gave the green light at the end of March to a direct aid plan presented by the Government to promote the movement of loads from the road to the railway with the intended purpose of reducing polluting emissions. It has 120 million euros from the community coffers and will run until June 2026, with subsidies whose amount will depend on the volume of goods that pass from the truck to the train and the traffic.

This is intended to give a boost to a sector that has been moving in sluggishness for almost a decade. In 2021, its modal share in land transport was 3.6% (measured in net tons per kilometer), five times less than the European average (18%). It was also its lowest record since 2011 and very similar to that of a 2020 clearly marked by the pandemic. The best financial year for rail freight transport was 2014 – the first private companies arrived in 2007 – and even so, this share did not exceed 5.1%, while the revenue of the companies that operate in it was close to 313 million euros compared to to 265 million last year (almost two thirds are from Renfe), according to operator estimates.

Despite this background, the Ministry of Transport believes that its Goods 30 program can be fulfilled, which aims to achieve a market share of 10% for this type of railway in 2030, which would mean almost tripling (2.7 times more) the last official record. In reality, the goal is set by Brussels again – it also monitors the slow progress in the Mediterranean corridors (which should reach Almería) and the Atlantic (to Algeciras), also financed with EU capital –, which demands that by 2050 there be a balance 50% of the weight in this type of transport between trains and trucks.

More investments

To even get close to that first goal, it will be necessary to greatly increase the public investments that result in the sector. Germany has doubled it in the last decade in railway infrastructure and rolling stock, France has tripled it and Denmark has multiplied it by five, according to the latest annual report from the Railway Observatory. That is why the Government plans to dedicate close to 8,000 million euros in the current decade, most of it through European funds for the recovery of the crisis caused by covid, known as Next Generation.

The main lines of action include promoting intermodality –including adaptation to the European gauge–, modernizing distribution hubs –in Spain and Portugal there are a thousand unused or obsolete industrial branches–, improving connections port railways –almost half of freight train traffic has origin or destination in the ports, especially Barcelona, ​​Valencia and Bilbao–, transform the unloading terminals –the railway manager Adif will invest nine million in expanding the sidings to 750 meters in different stations– and increase digitization –the strong growth of electronic commerce is another business opportunity–. Aid is also planned for the operating companies, "very pessimistic" with the situation of this market according to the latest Competition report (CNMC).

However, the Association of Private Railway Companies (AEFP) fears that many will go to the still dominant public operator –which they denounced to the CNMC for the high rental prices of their rolling stock–, despite its progressive loss of weight. According to Adif, the 71% share that Renfe Mercancías had in 2016 (in accumulated train kilometers) has dropped to 59% in 2021, and that despite indirectly benefiting from the drop in private companies in 2020.

A dozen rail operators are operating in this market, where a subsidiary of the French public group SNCF is trying to gain ground and the Chinese shipping giant Cosco – with great weight in container traffic at the ports of Valencia and Bilbao – has taken over the Logitren operator. That is why Renfe has reinforced the search for one or more strategic, industrial or financial partners, while it has acquired twelve new electric locomotives.

The Mediterranean Corridor will be ready in 2026, "immovable deadline"

The Mediterranean Corridor that is to link Almería with the French border –the forecast of the EU, which is promoting it politically and financially, is to reach Hungary–, both for rail traffic of people and goods, will be "a reality no later than the year 2026”. It is the "commitment" that the Minister of Transport, Raquel Sánchez, announced at the end of 2021 and that was in line with what she already said in November to about 1,300 businessmen gathered in Madrid and very complaining about a delay in these works that exceeds 15 years.

"Seven presidents of different political colors have passed through the Government and here the corridor is still not finished," the president of Mercadona, Juan Roig, severely criticized. He is one of the great defenders of the project, along with several large companies such as CaixaBank, BP Spain, Porcelanosa, Pamesa, J. García Carrión, Boluda, Baleària and Casa Tarradellas, among others.

Its great claim is to build a railway corridor parallel to the Mediterranean coast with a double platform – the one used by the AVE – in international gauge. This would facilitate the flow of transport with the rest of the EU –companies from these Spanish regions account for more than 50% of the country's exports–, while also reinforcing large projects such as the Volkswagen gigafactory in Sagunto to manufacture vehicle batteries electrical.

It is expected that for each euro invested in the works of this infrastructure, whose final cost will far exceed 20,000 million euros, there will be a return of 3.5 euros in national GDP. In the 2021 Budgets, 1,982 million were dedicated to it and this year another 1,710 million.

The works are more advanced between Barcelona and Alicante, in contrast to significant delays in the sections of Andalusia. In fact, postponements are feared and in the sector there is even talk of 2030 to end the entire project. Even so, the minister insists: "The deadline set is immovable."

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