Getting freight back on track

Zayane writes*

©AP images/European Union – EP

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%).

The EU has set a target of reducing GHG emissions from the transport sector by 60% by 2050. Achieving this target requires that 30% of long distance (over 300km) road freight shift to rail by 2030.

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 :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Getting freight back on track”

  1. I’m surprised to learn that rail is less reliable than road in Europe! I want to learn more! From a pure engineering perspective, is rail more reliable that road? Is rail less reliable than roads because of operational/management problems? I’ve noticed that Europeans love their mega-highways. Have rail lines expanded their capacity at the same rate as road expansion in the past decades?
    Also, INCREDIBLE TITLE!!!!

    1. Thank you for your comment and for the interesting questions! I can’t answer all of them right now but I will for sure address them in my future research! One reason why the train is not as competitive as the road (especially on short distances) is that they are less flexible (you need to make sure the train is full and so you either need big clients or good planning). So yes, I would say that rail is at the moment less competitive because of operational and management challenges although they are increasingly being used in “hubs” such as port terminals because these places concentrate several different modes of transport.

  2. I think this is such an interesting topic. Like Stephanie it also surprised me that rail is considered less reliable, because (not sure on the research about this) I would imagine that there are much less train accidents were cargo gets ruined than lorry accidents. Wouldn’t this make rail more attractive because there is a larger guarantee that the cargo gets to its destination without being harmed? You mentioned that the rail at the moment is not flexible enough, to make it more flexible would it mean that more rail connections need to be created? or more trains need to be leaving places more frequently? how could the rail industry improve on the flexibility aspect?
    Really excited to read more on this topic in your report!

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