freight train

European railway harmony is better for the climate

​Transporting goods by train instead of by truck is one of the keys to more sustainable transports within Europe. But the transition to rail is difficult, and one major problem is that alarm limit values for wheel loads are not coordinated between European countries. But thanks to researchers at Chalmers, new European rules have been introduced that will make it easier to transport goods by train.

“Our research was the scientific basis that convinced the rest of Europe to adapt to our Swedish proposal for alarm limit levels. The alternative for us in Sweden would have been the continuing lack of clarity on the matter. This would most likely have diminished our competitiveness for goods by rail”, says Anders Ekberg, professor at the Department of Mechanics and Maritime Sciences and director of Charmec*.

More environmentally friendly transports

To achieve the overall climate targets, one of Sweden’s milestones is to double the share of goods transported by train by the year 2030. If that amplification is to become a reality, three important measures are needed – to increase both the operational safety as well as the capacity of the railway and to promote cross-border freight traffic ¬– something that today is difficult because alarm limit values for rail loads vary widely between countries in Europe.

About half of the freight traffic in Europe is already crossing borders and that trend is expected to increase as the European freight corridors are gradually put into operation. This measure is necessary to enable railway freight to compete with freight on the road.

The lack of coordinated alarm limits means that a damaged wheel can produce wheel load magnitudes that are allowed in one country, but not in another. For example, a Swedish train can travel through Europe just to have to turn around at the border of Switzerland, which today has the lowest permissible level, something that has occurred. This type of inefficient management of alarm levels also has consequences for passenger traffic as operational disruptions spread in the rail system – which leads to high costs for both railway managers and train operators in addition to the nuisance it causes to passengers.

Sensitive system

The railroad is an interlinked system where the “weakest link” often dictates how the system can be used to transport goods. Other modes of freight transport can operate at higher levels of interference. It is easier to quickly redirect a truck when there are obstacles on the road than to redirect a train that often only has one way to go. For this reason rail traffic needs to put more efforts into avoiding interferences. Having the same alarm limits in all European countries is a step towards avoiding disturbances.

“To be able to agree on common alarm limits, a solid, scientific basis is required. At the heart of the now common alarm limits is our research of forces from out-of-round wheels and how these affect the risk of rail breaks and disruptions​. The work has now also been accepted and established internationally in a so-called International Railway Solution (IRS) which the International Railway Union (UIC) has approved. Of course, we are very pleased with that”, says Anders Ekberg.


* Charmec (Chalmers Railway Mechanics) is a national centre in the field of railway mechanics with twelve business and administration stakeholders. The research is based on the interaction between vehicles/track and related phenomena (noise, material degradation, brake damage, etc.), which causes more than half of the maintenance costs of the track and freight trains.


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Published: Tue 20 Aug 2019. Modified: Wed 21 Aug 2019