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Shortlines Take on Former Monopoly

Deregulation gave the shortlines a choice between continuing co-operation with the state railway, or competing. They chose the latter.

In June 1996, the Swedish government deregulated the railfreight market. Now the shortline operators, which previously were allowed to operate only on branch lines abandoned by state-owned SJ, were granted access to the entire network. There is one restriction, namely that the private operators may only use timetable slots that SJ doesn't use.

That may sound like a big restriction and perhaps it is. But the private operators' home turf is still in the perifery of the rail network where timetable slots aren't scarce. The entrepreneurs are now free to drive trains from one perifery to another, without paying SJ to help.

BK Tåg is the bigshot of the former shortlines. Apart from running passenger trains for some of the provincial transit authorities, BK's trophy is the thrice-weekly transport of cartons for Tetra Pak from inland Karlstad to the harbour in Göteborg. BK Tåg is now looking into teaming up with Privatbanen Sönderjylland to provide an alternative rail service to Germany.

The state railways of Sweden, Denmark and Norway have started a co-operation agreement dubbed Nordic Rail International, NRI (partly as a manifestation of frustration over the slow process of integration and harmonization on the continent, says SJ's new boss Daniel Johannesson). Unless BK Tåg and Privatbanen Sönderjylland can agree to start their own alliance, the big buddies in NRI will be the only choice for Scandinavian railfreight to the continent.

Sweden and Norway are separated from Europe by the North Sea and the Öresund strait. Only Denmark has a land link to Germany. In two years, a bridge across the Öresund strait from Sweden to Denmark will be ready, and NRI hopes this will help their revenues. New locos, compatible with Swedish, Danish and German electric and signalling systems, are on order, and the marshalling yard in Malmö, Sweden, is being modified to accomodate an expected increase in freight traffic.

But crossing the bridge will be expensive, and the railways are unlikely to gain support for their suggestion of scrapping the bridge toll. That's where BK Tåg and Privatbanen Sönderjylland come in. They are thinking of using a ferry to transport trains from Gothenburg, Sweden, to northern Denmark and thus bypassing both the bridge toll and the crowded tracks in southern Sweden and Denmark.

Privatbanen Sönderjylland already has cross-border services into Germany, and BK Tåg already has their trains servicing Gothenburg. BK could very easily extend their reach past Karlstad to the mining and forestry industries up north. And rail administration Banverket is working upgrade the railway northward from Gothenburg. The project will increase axle loads to 25 tonnes and make room for Europe's tallest and widest trains.

Mr Johannesson, SJ's boss, recently said that SJ should help the shortlines in the perifery with locos and other services, since the shortlines generate extra traffic for the rest of the network. SJ's core business in the freight sector is trainloads, and there they will fight hard, Johannesson says.

Will the shortlines be able to snatch heavy international traffic from under the nose of the former monopolies?

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