Grain is stuck in Ukraine: the fragmented nature of modern day railways

The war in Ukraine has devastated the global food market, and surprisingly because Ukrainian wheat is not being harvested, rather it cannot leave the country. With Russia blocking seaports, the only way for Ukrainian grain is by train. And it reveals the long-hidden patchwork of railway tracks and train standards: trains cannot cross the Ukrainian-Polish border on their way to seaports because the tracks do not match.

Even beyond the obvious problems of connecting different sized physical railway tracks – track gauges – there are different signaling systems, different voltages for electric trains, different loading and structural gauges. In Europe today, the political history of the last few hundred years is still found using its railroads, with parts of the European Union still having 1,520 mm Soviet-standard gauge instead of the 1,435 mm standard gauge, which is more familiar. Stephenson gauge, European gauge, etc.

These complications explain why, as a result of the current war in Ukraine, railways in the rest of Europe are no longer used for transporting grain and other goods: Ukraine using 1,520 mm gauge, all cargo has to be transferred to different trains in Ukraine – EU border or bogie swapped. Although some variable gauge systems exist, they come with their own limitations.

In light of this it is not difficult to understand why the standardization of a single international or even European track gauge is complicated because all tracks and rolling stock have been replaced or adapted, even before considering the aforementioned voltage and signaling differences. Which makes us wonder if we will ever see a solution to this historically growing problem.

History of Engineering

16th century minecart with wooden tracks found in Transylvania.  (Credit: LoKiLeCh)
16th century minecart with wooden tracks found in Transylvania. (Credit: LoKiLeCh)

The concept of a trackway is thought to be one of the earliest of the ancient, Greek Dulux slipways. Although the exact configuration and presence of grooved tracks is still disputed in archeological circles, Diolkos (3From the Greek dia For“Across”, and holkos 3The “Portage Machine”) was built in the 6th century BC to enable the ship to sail quickly across the Eastmas Land Bridge, and has been used for more than five hundred years, according to historical reports and recent beach research, supported by Citis. Etc. (2022).

Over the past thousands of years, the use of tracks to guide wagons, cars and carts along a defined route has become more common and popular, from excavation and transportation to industrial use, providing human and animal driving. With the advent of the steam engine and later diesel-electric and electric trains, large-scale track systems for transportation will begin, which will define the railway as a defining transformative feature of the 19th century and beyond.

Surprisingly, each railway company would initially set its own track gauge and other standards, the rolling stock was basically confined to the tracks of the railway company who bought it. This situation persisted until governments, such as the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act of 1846 in Great Britain and Ireland, began to implement a standard gauge.

The No. 1 locomotive, developed by George Stephenson for the Stockton and Darlington Railways, is called 'Locomotion'.  (Source: Lives of the Engineers, 1862)
The No. 1 locomotive, developed by George Stephenson for the Stockton and Darlington Railways, is called ‘Locomotion’. (Source: Lives of the Engineers, 1862)

The law enforced the use of the most popular track gauge in Great Britain at the time, which was the 1,435 mm track used by George Stephenson’s Stockton and Darlington railways in addition to other railways built at the time. Interestingly, the same law also applied a 1,600 mm gauge standard in Ireland, which is why Ireland and Northern Ireland still use this track gauge today.

This British 1,435 mm standard is known today as the ‘Standard Gauge’, and will be adopted in Europe, North America and other parts of the world. Stephenson himself noted that he preferred to get a broad gauge of more than 1,435 mm, and to this day about forty percent of commercial railways somewhere use another gauge, usually a type of ‘broad gauge’, because anything wider than the standard gauge Is mentioned. .

Fix history

Dual gauge track (1520 and 1435 mm) between Mokava and Shestokai in Lithuania, part of "Rail Baltica" (Credit: Gedminus)
Dual gauge track (1520 and 1435 mm) between Mokava and Shestokai in Lithuania, part of “Rail Baltica” (Credit: Gedminus)

At this time, there are eight commonly used track gauges, followed by the Soviet-era 1,520 mm standard 15% and in Europe the meter gauge (1,000 mm, Spain and Switzerland), the Iberian gauge (1,668). Mm, Portugal and Spain), the old 1,524 mm Soviet standard (Estonia, Finland), Ireland and the above 1,600 mm gauge in Northern Ireland. Only 1,676 mm gauge value is not present in Europe.

While the obvious way to fix this situation is to replace all the tracks and rolling stock, or simply accept that international trains are impossible, there are some intermediate solutions. A common solution is dual and mixed gauge tracks, which add one or more additional tracks to match any gauge that can use rolling stock. Of course, this still adds significant cost and is worth it if the rolling stock uses tracks regularly with all these gauges.

Leon's Gauge Change (Credit: INECO)
Gauge Change at Leon (Credit: INECO)

Another solution is variable gauge, which involves a bogie equipped with an axle that can automatically change their track gauge using a gauge switching station that triggers the process of gauge change as it passes through the bogie. Thus trains between Spain and France run between the different rail networks of this country. The limitations here are that no variable gauge system supports more than two gauges, and variable gauge bogies limit the weight that can be placed on them, making them unsuitable for freight traffic.

Finally, there are bogie exchanges, which involve the exchange of rolling stock bogies. It is still of limited use for most freight trains, but the control and other lines need to be disconnected and reconnected, and each train can take about ten minutes to an hour, which is why this method has lost ground for variable gauge axles. Systems that do not require such expert intervention. At this time, it is still commonly used for trains between countries like Ukraine and Poland and Romania.

No quick fix

While steps are slowly being taken to transform the whole of Europe into a standard gauge, it is a slow, difficult process. Although the choice to use the 1,435mm standard gauge for new lines is obvious – especially when rolling stock can use the same old or new gauge as in the case of Spain – not every country has this easy way out. For former USSR countries such as Lithuania and others, the ‘Rail Baltica’ proposal predicts a shift from old Soviet-era tracks to new tracks using standard gauges, a huge undertaking that has led many to disbelieve.

Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Kava mentioned some issues regarding loading gauges, as rolling stock in Ukraine may be wider than allowed in the EU outside Romania and Bulgaria, and excel loading is much higher than allowed in Ukraine. EU track. This goes back to Stephenson’s comment in the 19th century about the shortcomings of the bureaucraticly selected standard gauge and the uncomfortable realization that switching from ‘broad gauge’ to ‘standard gauge’ could actually be a downgrade rather than an improvement.

However, much like the proverbial freight train-like cut-off brake line abandonment is moving forward, making the standard of 1,435mm seem irresistible, at least for Europe. It will be used for adjustment regardless of whether it is actually the best choice. Similarly in realistic fashion when loading gauge and other aspects affecting international trains, the main priority is to ensure that trains can travel where they need to.

Fortunately, other compatibility issues, such as the different electrical voltages used across the electrified rail network, are significantly easier to solve.

Easy (ish) problem

Capable of working with diesel-electric SNCF Class B 82500, 1.5 kV DC and 25 kV AC overhead systems.
Capable of working with diesel-electric SNCF Class B 82500, 1.5 kV DC and 25 kV AC overhead systems.

Electrification of rail networks has occurred almost as randomly as track gauge increases, but compatibility issues have largely been solved using multi-system locomotives. They can receive power input from overhead wiring, such as low voltage (750 V DC in Europe) systems to multi-KV systems (up to 25 KV AC in Europe) with the voltage used today. Some of these locomotives are diesel-electric units that can run on non-electrified tracks.

Typically, this type of multi-system locomotive requires no input from the driver to operate, automatic switch-over between power sources and adaptations with voltages. Where things get much more complicated is with the railway signaling system, which features a variety of traffic control systems, such as automatic block signaling (ABS) train communication systems need to be compatible with the system, as well as safety measures that prevent accidents. .

However, these are fairly straightforward issues that only affect rolling stock and can be recovered fairly easily in existing locomotives.

Today’s obstacle

In an ideal world, the whole of Europe would use a standard gauge that an engineer like George Stephenson would be happy with, and that would allow Ukraine to build zero complexity and intermediate storage in the EU harbor from its storage facilities. The benefits offered in the present proposal. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in.

Despite the generally good condition of the rail network in Europe compared to many other regions, it is looking for ways to improve the existing railway system, keeping in mind its shortcomings and obstacles. Even if these errors are usually annoying due to the extra waiting time and expense, sometimes it means that Ukrainian grain is painfully stuck behind a gauge break, with serious consequences we are seeing this year.

[Header and Thumbnail photo: “Train Rail Tracks” by Evan Delshaw.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.