At the sight of this picture, you probably recall those long and uncomfortable hours you spent on the road trying to get to your destination. Maybe you still hear the horns of cars vainly attempting to exit? Can you still smell the fuel in the air?
Much of our hope for a transition of the transport sector to a less-greenhouse-gas (GHG) emitting sector rests on trains.
The transport sector accounts for no less than a quarter of total GHG emissions in Europe, 71.7% of which is attributable to road transport. Rail emits 3.5 times less GHG emissions than road transport and thus is a promising alternative.
Over the past 20 years, the EU has tried to increase the market share of rail transport without much success. The shares of the three inland transport modes remained roughly constant [pdf] between 1996 and 2016. Road transport still dominates, accounting for 75,3% of total inland freight transport in tonnes per kilometer in 2018, followed by rail (18,7%) and waterways (6.0%).
According to Islam and his colleagues, we need to double rails’ market share compared to its present levels if we want to reach the target set by the EU. Concretely, this means trains would carry 3-4 times current volumes.
Rail could turn towards LDHV (low density and high value) to increase its market share. According to recent estimates for a representative trans-European transport corridor, LDHV freight transport represents 16.5% of the total freight transport market. Currently, however, transport of LDHV freight is covered by road because rail is not competitive in terms of reliability and flexibility. A modal shift from road to rail in this market segment could highly reduce GHG emissions.
Improving transshipment technologies to enable faster and more flexible intermodal load transfer of containers of all sizes and weights is a promising avenue for making freight rail transport a more reliable alternative to road transport.
The Covid-19 pandemic has raised prices for air transport, slowed road transport, and increased transit times for air and sea freight. As a consequence, rail freight transport gained in reliability, economic viability, and competitiveness.
For example, the Eurnex [pdf], long-distance trans-Eurasian rail lines have suffered less from the changes the crisis has imposed on the supply chain than other modes of transport.
The operators who shifted capacity [pdf] from transport by sea to intra-European transport during the pandemic may adopt rail after the pandemic. Hence, the pandemic has shown how to restructure the transport network.
Bottom line: Rail freight transport is a promising avenue for reducing GHG emissions from the transport sector. However, the modal shift from road to rail has not yet been achieved because rail is not yet competitive with road transport due to a lack of reliability and flexibility. The covid-19 pandemic could facilitate this modal shift.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).