Improving European rail freight

The promotion of more efficient and sustainable methods of transport, and in particular of rail freight, has been a key part of European Union’s policy for the last 25 years. Accordingly, last year, the European Court of Auditors within the European Commission released its analysis on the status of European rail freight transport sector. The report revealed that rail freight transport has failed over the last 15 years to respond effectively to the competition presented by road transport in the EU. Shippers clearly prefer road over rail for transporting goods. Nevertheless, some Member States (such as Austria, Germany and Sweden) have managed to achieve better results in terms of modal share and volumes transported by rail.

Market liberalisation has achieved uneven progress in Member States and a single European railway area is still a long way from being achieved. The EU rail network has by and large remained a system of 26 separate rail networks (Cyprus and Malta have no rail networks) which are not fully interoperable, with various infrastructure managers, national safety authorities and very different national rules governing path allocation, management or pricing.
Freight trains are charged for every kilometer of rail infrastructure used; this is not always the case for road transport. Traffic management procedures are not adapted to the needs of rail freight, even within rail freight corridors. This makes it difficult for rail to compete with other modes of transport, especially road transport whose infrastructure is easily accessible across all Member States.
The report also revealed that improper maintenance of the rail network can affect the sustainability and the performance of EU funded infrastructure. In order to provide a good quality service to rail freight operators and shippers, and in general to make rail freight transport competitive, a rail network needs not only to be renovated and modernised by the infrastructure manager, but also to be regularly maintained. This is of particular importance for the rail freight corridors.
A network of around 216,000 km of active railway lines exists in the EU. This could potentially offer a sustainable alternative to road transport, especially over medium and long distances where rail freight transport has the potential to be more competitive.
In order to help the Member States and regions to shift goods from road to rail, EU financial support is available for investments in rail infrastructure. Approximately
EUR 28 billion was allocated from the EU budget to rail between 2007-2013 timeframe and EUR 26 billion are available within the 2014-2020 financing period besides EUR 31.7 billion under the Connecting Europe Facility.

A change that was needed

The aim of the rail freight corridors regulation was to facilitate and promote rail freight traffic operations, including traffic management. In particular, it established nine rail freight corridors, six of which have been in operation since November 2013. The rail freight corridors regulation already attempted to increase the transparency of the performance of rail freight services on freight corridors. Although efforts have been made, to this day, administrative and technical constraints still hamper the competitiveness of rail freight in Europe versus the road transport. These barriers include lengthy procedures for approving vehicles and issuing safety certificates for railway undertakings.
The report shows that this situation will tend to continue during the 2014-2020 period, with the CEF (the successor programme to TEN-T) focusing on rail investments and with the Cohesion policy funding prioritising roads.
Overall, the Court found that the EU had not been effective in enhancing rail freight transport. Rail freight transport in the EU has failed over the last 15 years to respond effectively to the competition presented by road transport. Shippers show a clear preference for road compared to rail for the transport of freight. As a result, and despite the EU’s policy objectives of shifting goods from roads to rail, the rail freight transport performance in the EU is persistently unsatisfactory in terms of modal share and volumes transported, although some Member States have managed to improve their performance.

A new approach – longer freight trains by 2021


Establishing the nine rail freight dedicated corridors seems to be the effective tool in order to increase the competitiveness of rail freight transport. Shippers decide which mode of transport to use on the basis of business criteria and not on the basis of EU policy priorities. To shift freight from roads to rail, it is therefore essential to ensure that rail freight transport in the EU is as competitive as possible. In addition to improving the regulatory and strategic framework, enhancing rail freight transport competitiveness requires a rail network adapted to specific rail freight needs, which entails making the best possible use of the available funding. The Member States should, in the framework of the business plans and indicative infrastructure development strategies set by the infrastructure managers, ensure the proper maintenance of the rail network (including last mile facilities), in particular in rail freight corridors.
First of the nine rail freight corridors, the Rhine-Alpine Corridor is a project meant to improve rail freight transport in Europe and to encourage modal shift from road to rail.
The Rhine-Alpine Corridor, with a length of 3,900 kilometers constitutes one of the busiest freight routes of Europe, connecting the North Sea ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp to the Mediterranean basin in Genoa, via Switzerland and some of the major economic centres in the Rhein-Ruhr, the Rhein-Main-Neckar, regions and the agglomeration of Milan in Northern Italy. This north–south corridor will integrate Priority Projects 5 and 24, ERTMS Corridor A and Rail Freight Corridor 1.
This year, the International Transport Forum (ITF) in Leipzig hosted European transport ministers from The Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany discussing the Rhine-Alpine corridor, which links the strategic ports of Rotterdam and Genoa via Switzerland and the major economic centres of Germany’s Rhein-Ruhr and Rhein-Main-Neckar regions. European ministers then agreed on a series of measures aimed at increasing the attractiveness and efficiency of rail transport, including improvements in how information is shared between carriers, shippers and infrastructure managers.
Together with European Commission transport representatives and rail stakeholders, ministers pledged to build on the success of the route, which is already benefiting from the new Gotthard rail tunnel linking Switzerland and Italy, and further increase its appeal as the preferred mode of transport for freight customers.
As well as closer cross-border working, ministers clearly asserted the importance of all stakeholders in ensuring that paths and capacities are taken full advantage of and used in the best possible way, while exploring opportunities for increased interoperability.
One of the key drivers for expanding capacity on the route will be the introduction of longer trains, and the Leipzig summit saw ministers discuss the possibility for having the first 740-metre trains, which are more than 200 meters longer than current trains, operate on the Rotterdam-Genoa route by 2021.
Despite rail freight facing fierce competition from road and water in recent years, rail freight’s market share of the logistics corridor between the North Sea ports via Switzerland to Italy has risen by 6.8 per cent, whereas road transport has fallen by 3.4 per cent, according to the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.
“The growth in rail freight transport is important for the sector, and consequently for our economy. In addition, it offers huge environmental gains, as an average train carries 52 times more goods than a lorry, yet generates up to 80 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions”, Dutch Transport Secretary Sharon Dijksma said.
The Rhine-Alpine Rail Freight Corridor (RFC) is one of the nine strategic European rail freight corridors, providing a network of opportunities for rail freight stakeholders and customers all over Europe. A mixture of public (national infrastructure managers from The Netherlands – ProRail, Belgium – Infrabel, Germany – DB Netz and Italy – RFI) and private enterprise, the corridors’ core aims are to remove capacity bottlenecks, build missing cross-border connections and promote modal integration and interoperability.

This article was published in the June issue of the Railway PRO Magazine that analyses the latest and most important railway projects around the world.

by Elena Ilie

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