Marathon tests operation economics for longer freight trains in Europe

In Europe, the business model and technical allowed train sizes for freight are very different then found in the North American business model. Freight trains in Europe are often less than one quarter the unit train length seen as engineering standards in Mexico, Canada, and the US.

Only in a few places like Sweden and Northern Norway are longer freight bulk cargo unit trains operating as a normal business practice.

The released report on the Marathon project provides an interesting case study of experimental improvements elsewhere in Europe. The news report was authored by Keith Barrow for International a Rail a Journal readers and published in fuller content on the IRJ web site. For the full news report, log into the URL cited here.

Here is a very brief summary of the cited technical study.

In September 2014 the conclusions of a €4.38m research project into the operation of longer freight trains on conventional mixed-traffic lines were presented at the InnoTrans exhibition in Berlin.

Backed by the EU and 17 state rail industry partners, the three-year Marathon project sought to validate the performance of 1500m-long freight trains running at up to 120km/h in everyday operating conditions.

It included a feasibility of 1,500 meter-long freight trains.

the project sought to establish the economic impact of their operation and the potential efficiencies.

Marathon’s target was a 40% cut in network capacity usage per tonne with cost reductions of up to 30% and 5% less energy consumption per tonne.

Marathon project coordinator Mr Franco Castagnetti says that in Europe, “No government has the money for major expenditure on railfreight infrastructure in the short-term, so we need to look differently at what we have now.”


The Marathon operating concept is based around the coupling and splitting of two standard-length European shorter freight trains. Many European freight trains are less than 750 meters long. That is pretty small for modern competition against European truck and water freight services.

The economic benefit is to “optimize” European track capacity on busy freight corridors, using distributed traction (locomotives) to enable operation with a single driver. Conventional trains from two different points of origin converge on a freight yard, where they are coupled for the journey to a second yard. Here the trains are uncoupled and continue to their destinations as two or three conventional trains.

When the two trains are coupled, the inner locomotive or slave unit is controlled via a radio link from the lead locomotive, the master.

If the longer trains were coupled with an increase in axle loads from less than 25 metric tonnes today to the new norm of 30 metric tinned per axle seen in Sweden…    … then the Marathon project could see the type of economic benefits seen in North America since the end of World War 2. That holistic integration of length and load per wagon would really create a strategic change in the competitive position of European rail freight.

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