Cross border railway crossing: Pain points, partnership and persistence

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Cross border railway crossing: Pain points, partnership and persistence Freight train in route to its destination | © Plasser & Theurer

Because rail is a climate-friendly, low-cost mode, many countries have set ambitious targets for expanding the share of freight moved by rail. The EU, for example, aspires to double its rail freight traffic to 30 percent by 2050, while India aims to increase rail share to 50 percent by 2030. Increasing rail’s share can be particularly hard to achieve when freight is moving across national borders. The challenges of this type of movement were explored in a recent virtual workshop on “Creating Successful Cross-border Railway Services.”

The Pain Points

The challenges can be substantial. A shipment from Dar es Salam to the Democratic Republic of Congo must be processed through three different customs systems – Tansis, Ascuda and Sydonia. A freight train carrying a shipment from Rotterdam to Nova Zagora in Bulgaria must communicate with six different train control systems. Cross border trains must work within each country’s:

  • Rail technical standards
  • Rail operating rules
  • Rail alcohol and drug testing regimes
  • Rail safety standards and practices
  • Driver qualifications, training and language
  • Customs, border security and phytosanitary standards and documentation

While on the surface, the main barriers to smooth movement of trains across borders seem to be infrastructure or regulations, the root cause for these limitations is a lack of communication between stakeholders. A common point in the workshop was the need to understand that everyone is better off by establishing a constructive relationship which enables mutual understanding and trust.

Partnership and Persistence

The good news is that it can be done! The workshop presented several cases, where countries had worked together to harmonize their regulations, technologies and practices and where customs and border protections agencies work together to create “One Stop – Go!” border checks. What are the keys to success?

Build the value proposition for all parties. Before people will do the hard work to harmonize their systems, they must see the benefit of it and make it a priority.

Take a corridor/network approach. Investing in infrastructure on one side of the border makes no sense if the freight will get stuck at a customs post or infrastructure bottle neck on the other side of the border.

Create a partnership. All parties need to work together. Regulators need to harmonize the regulations they can and minimize the differences in the rest. Customs and border security need to coordinate operations to minimize border crossing time, consistent with fulfilling their responsibilities.  Railway companies need to coordinate train path, documentation and operations.

Be persistent. The U.S., Canada and Mexico have been working for since the mid 1990’s to harmonize regulations, provide for cross-acceptance of drivers, and unify border processing.

Enhance border safety and security. Railways must fully comply with border clearance requirements specific to railways. At the same time, trains operate differently than automobiles or airplanes. Hence border crossing procedures need to recognize rail operational needs.

Map the process of operating trains across borders. Successful efforts to streamline operations have mapped processes step by step. This allows to identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Address the pain points first. Prioritizing the pain points gives focus to the efforts and yields wins that encourage the partners to persist.

Use technology. Technology cannot substitute for the work to harmonize rules and processes. But computer systems can facilitate the flow of information and scanner technology can speed customs inspections.

Invest creatively. With only a small investment, border operations may be adapted to the operational needs of the railway. Such investments may include specialized screening equipment or facilities. Sometimes the highest return investment is outside the entity’s own property or country. 

Mexico border crossing

Picture 1 US - Mexico Border Crossing; Source: Google Maps

Thoughtful consideration to these “keys to success” can yield great benefits. TCT explained how the green lanes saved lives by expediting medical shipments across European borders. KCS Railway increased line capacity at the U.S.-Mexico border by 40 percent without modifying railway infrastructure. These are tangible economic and environmental benefits every country may achieve, if they choose. By building partnerships, prioritizing pain points, and persisting in the effort, every rail border can become “One Stop – Go!.”


Martha Lawrence

Global Lead for Railways, World Bank

Victor Aragones

Senior Transport Economist in the Transport

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