In Europe most (but not all) railways were built to permit a 22.5 t axle-load, the national exceptions being Britain, Latvia and Estonia, where 25 t is permitted, and Sweden. In the latter country, in addition to the 25 t allowed on some lines, the Malmbanan in the north has recently been upgraded to 32.5 t between Gällivare and Luleå (see R 6/17, pp. 60 - 61), with the remainder to Narvik to follow once evaluation of iron ore train operations on this first stretch have been fully evaluated. Upgrading of main freight routes to 25 t is, however, in progress across much of Europe, to increase capacity.
In Russia, wagons built in the past were designed for a 23.5 t axle load, and designs were based on vehicles built during the Soviet era. The RZD network, about 85,200 km of lines, is being gradually subjected to infrastructure upgrades, to enable greater route availability for wagons with 27 t axle-loads. At present RZD’s rail infrastructure is built for a 25 t axle-load. However, most wagons currently in service are designed for only a 23.5 t maximum axle-load. There is now a need for more wagons with a 25 t axle-load, one of the features which wagon builders refer to as „innovative“ („new generation“; for details of their characteristics see R 5/15, p. 40).
Russia is the world’s railfreight leader – in 2016 87% of all freight was moved by rail. But it was only in 2013 that wagon owners in Russia started making use of 25 t axle-load gondola wagons on a large scale – and manufacturers started addressing the potential market. But the price of these vehicles was considered excessive. It was only when the cost of hiring them dropped to between 400 and 500 RUB per day, this occurring between 2015 and the first half of 2017, that many wagon owners decided to stop acquiring standard capacity gondolas.
This enabled various Russian wagon works, notably Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) and OVK (UWC, United Wagon Company) subsidiary Tikhvin Wagon Works (TVSZ), to focus on building 25 t axle-load gondolas. Wagon owners were encouraged to purchase these vehicles through incentives such as State subsidisation and attractive leasing agreements.
Since its founding in 2012 OVK, led by CEO Roman Savushkin, has addressed the fact that a number of trunk rail routes in Russia are in fact adequate for wagons with 25 t axle-loads. According to a report published by INFOLine in late 2018 entitled „Evaluation of Operation Effects of Freight Wagons with Increased Load Capacity on the Rail Market of the Russian Federation“, in the period between 2013 and the end of the third quarter of 2018 it is reckoned that the use of 25 t axle-load gondola wagons had a positive effect of 130 billion RUB on the Russian GDP.
This was mainly because the use of these wagons, which have a greater payload capacity, resulted in an increase in exports of products (in particular coal) moved by rail. Bearing in mind the limits imposed on freight train operation on the Russian rail infrastructure, the use of these wagons enabled greater quantities of freight to be carried. Thanks to their use, between 2013 and the third quarter of 2018 29 million more tonnes of coal destined for export were carried.
The use of 25 t axle-load gondola wagons had had a number of other positive effects. For instance, these wagons can be used for eight years or 1 million km between heavy overhauls. Regular examinations are only necessary every 800,000 km, compared with once every 110,000 km for older generations of wagons, which are based on Soviet designs and which can only manage three years or 210,000 km between such overhauls. As regards individual components used in the construction of the 25 t axle-load gondolas, these have lifespans of between three and 3.5 times longer than those used on older vehicles, and up to 6,000 km can be run during the warranty period without the need for inspections.
OVK’s gondolas are also more infrastructure-friendly. RZD estimates that their use resulted in a reduction in infrastructure maintenance costs of 7.5 billion RUB in 2017, while they also generated 1.0 billion RUB of freight revenue while running loaded. Coal mining companies also benefit. They save on average 200 RUB per tonne transported when using 25 t axle-load wagons for moving coal between Kemerovo Oblast (the Kuzbass mining basin) and the Far East ports. This makes these mining companies more competitive on the world market, and creates new opportunities for them to further invest in coal mining technologies and export strategies.
In 2017 the use of 25 t axle-load gondolas resulted in a 9 million tonne increase in coal exports, generating over 1.6 billion RUB of taxes, which were paid into the State budget funds. It is expected that by 2025 over 25 million tonnes of coal will be moved by these wagons, this, combined with the realisation of investment programmes by the mining companies, generating up to 5 billion RUB in taxes annually. It is calculated that the cumulative financial gain, from the start of using 25 t gondola wagons in 2013 up to 2025, will be no less than 1 trillion RUB. This figure excludes RZD’s savings on infrastructure maintenance, locomotive maintenance, and incomes obtained by the State via higher profit levels generated by RZD and taxes paid by the coal mining concerns and other transport organisations.
By 1 July 2018 the number of 25 t axle-load gondola wagons had increased by 2.8% or 14,600 wagons, from the beginning of the year, with 510,300 wagons in use. Moreover, during the first half of 2018 the average age of the gondola fleet fell to 8.2 years. RZD is not the only owner of these modern gondolas - many are owned by private companies. Purchases by all wagon owners of 25 t axle-load gondolas in the first half of 2018 involved 19,100 vehicles, while 3,900 old gondolas were scrapped. 25 t axle-weight gondolas only made up 6% of the whole gondola fleet in the first half of 2017. But by the first half of 2018 they made up 43%!
The Russian Government provides subsidies for the purchase of modern wagons incorporating innovative features. However, demand for these wagons is now starting to exceed production capacity. Further subsidies are available for gondola wagons with a 27 t axle-load, but none were ordered in the first half of 2018. To upgrade infrastructure to support a 27 t axle load, some modernisation work is needed, but the costs involved are not significantly great. RZD is currently testing wagons designed for a 27 t axle-load on a 42 km line which has not been upgraded between Kamensk-Uralsky and Bogdanovich (east of Yekaterinburg).
Once this testing has been completed and proven satisfactory, RZD plans to upgrade more strategically important stretches of main line for a 27 t axle-load: Kovdor to Murmansk, Kachkanar to Smychka, Stoylenskaya to Prisady and Stoylenskaya to Chugun, in all around 1,200 route km, of key importance for the transport of coal and iron ore. During the first half of 2018 the largest individual buyers of 25 t axle-load gondolas were SUEK (5,300 wagons), Vostok1520 (6,300), FGK (the Federal Freight Company, Federalnaya gruzovaya kompaniya, previously known as Freight Two, with 1,800 wagons) and NPK (1,500). By then the concerns with the largest gondola fleets (all types of gondolas) were the FGK with 92,100 wagons, PGK (Freight One, Pervaya gruzovaya kompaniya, 66,500 gondolas), NPK (43,900) and SUEK (39,800), while those with the largest fleets of 25 t axle-load gondolas were Vostok1520 (31,000), SUEK (20,800), FGK (8,700) and PGK (8,600).
Increases in coal production in the Kuzbass basin in Kemerovo Oblast and in Eastern Siberia, and increasing amounts of coal being exported, have resulted in a shortage of gondola wagons. Inefficient operating practices on the rail network hinder progress. Here there are motive power shortages, resulting in some freight workings being cancelled while in progress, and the stock left abandoned en route. Wagon turnover is low - round trips take longer than scheduled. There are also physical limits to capacity on some lines.
All these problems are expected to continue into 2021, but then it is expected that there will be a gradual improvement. This will be possible since wagon production schedules are to be accelerated. Moreover, as the fleets of modern wagons increase in size, the number of old wagons which have to be withdrawn each year will shrink in size. This will happen in spite of the fact that modern gondola wagons are expensive, and will remain so, on account of the cost of many components, such as heavy castings, wheels and axles.
Between 2015 and 2017 Russian wagon owners acquired 64,000 high-capacity 25 t axle-load gondola wagons and only 6,400 gondolas of the older design originating in the Soviet era. This gave the various wagon works in Russia an opportunity to gear up their production schedules over the coming two years, and retain their specialised workforces. Demand has risen steadily: in 2018 TVSZ’s 25 t axle-weight bogie production capacity was running at 100%.
2018 did however bring its problems. The rate of withdrawals of older types of gondola wagon slowed down. This was on account of a general shortage of wagons, and a fall in demand from wagon owners and operators. In August 2018 UVZ restructured its gondola manufacturing facilities, so as to be able to build wagons of standard characteristics, mounted on Model 18-100 bogies. The state of play at 1 October 2018 was that on the RZD network there were over 520,000 gondola wagons in service. Of these, nearly 98,000 were 25 t axle-load high capacity vehicles, comprising 19% of the whole fleet.