An unbalanced 'modal split'
There is a strong imbalance between the different transport modes in inland freight transport, with road transport well ahead. Indeed, looking at the four land transport modes (road, rail, inland waterways and pipelines), rail accounts for just 17% of EU inland freight transport (2006 data), while inland waterways and oil pipelines account for 5% each. Road, on the other hand, accounts for 73% of total freight transport in the EU 27, remaining the dominant freight transport mode in all member states except Estonia (65% rail) and Latvia (54% rail). In countries like Cyprus (100% road), Malta (100% road), Ireland (99% road), Greece (98% road) and, to a slightly lesser extent, Portugal (95%) and Spain (92%), other freight transport modes are practically non-existent, the latest Eurostat figures reveal.
Taking intra-EU maritime and air transport into account, the share of roads falls to roughly 45% but nevertheless remains dominant. Rail's share of inland freight transport then decreases to around 10.5%, while shipping accounts for nearly 40% and air transport 0.1%.
More efficient supply chains: promoting co-modality
In its 2001 White Paper on transport, the EU set itself the priority of shifting traffic away from roads to more sustainable transport modes in response to growing concerns regarding the environmental impact of road transport, the scarcity of fossil fuels and other negative external effects produced by road freight, such as congestion and accidents (see our LinksDossier on the Transport White Paper).
But a 2006 review of the policy conceded that road transport was likely to remain at the centre of EU transport operations for the foreseeable future and instead stressed the importance of promoting so-called "co-modality" – better integration of different transport modes into efficient logistics chains by using each mode to its optimal potential and combined with others – to resolve these issues.
An important part of this programme will be enhancing technical harmonisation and interoperability across systems to facilitate the use of several transport modes on a single trip. This is the main thrust of an EU Action Plan for Freight Transport Logistics adopted in October 2007 (EurActiv 19/10/07), which supports measures aimed at improving connections between the different modes, putting greater emphasis on quality criteria in modal choices, investing in modern trans-shipment hubs, and enhancing cross-border management of freight flows and the associated administrative reporting requirements.
The Action Plan notably indicates the need by 2020 to define "green corridors" and to reinforce their importance and role in the EU's trans-European transport network (TEN-T) priorities (see LinksDossier). Research activities to establish such corridors are currently being prepared.
A European financing programme, Marco Polo, has also been available since 2003 to promote innovative solutions in this field (see the Commission's pages on Marco Polo).
Optimising individual modes
The development of co-modality has been hampered by the fact that each transport mode suffers from specific problems. Rail is prone to lengthy delivery times, frequent delays and limited capacity, while road suffers from growing congestion, rising oil prices and a resoundingly negative environmental impact. Also, inland waterways are facing strong competition from tourism, leisure and housing development, meaning many ports are congested and often lack the necessary trans-shipment facilities and connections with the hinterland.
To reinforce the position of railways, three rail packages aimed at market liberalisation and harmonisation have been adopted at EU level, with the latest package aimed at opening up international passenger transport to competition as of 2010 (EurActiv 22/06/07). A Communication on a Freight-Oriented Railway Network was also published as part of the Logistics Action Plan. It seeks to give the declining rail freight sector a boost by tackling key efficiency, reliability, punctuality and competitiveness problems. Measures proposed include ending an existing priority given to passenger trains on lines with mixed traffic when networks are congested. It also proposes harmonisation of train lengths and loads so as to increase inter-operability between countries and prevent freight trains from being stopped and delayed at borders due to differing standards.
On road transport, the Logistics Action Plan suggests "assessing the need to review the current limitations of road vehicle weights and dimensions". The initiative aims to tackle congestion by removing an existing ban in most member states on 25-metre long, 60 tonne 'modular trucks' that can carry greater volumes without increasing the number of trips. But critics say the move would drive the price of road transport down even further, generating unsustainable demand and exacerbating competition with rail (EurActiv 23/07/07).
The European Commission is also looking to boost maritime transport by building on the success of short-sea shipping within the EU and establishing genuine "motorways of the sea". To revive inland waterways, the Commission, in January 2006, adopted a Communication on the promotion of inland waterway transport, also known as the 'NAIADES' Action Programme. It focuses on five strategic areas to make inland navigation more attractive.
The urban dimension (last mile)
The action plan also has a strong urban dimension as distribution in cities and conurbations is particularly troublesome (see our LinksDossier on Urban Transport). The establishment of urban freight distribution terminals, providing an interface between long-distance shipments and 'last-mile' deliveries, can help reduce the number of trucks driving in urban areas. The focus is also on ensuring that transport between production centres and customers within city centres is clean and efficient.
One suggestion is to strengthen the freight component of the EU's existing CIVITAS initiative, which provides support for cities wishing to test and introduce innovative urban mobility solutions and re-balance the modal split towards sustainable transport modes.
The Logistics Action Plan further calls on the EU to develop a roadmap for the implementation of the 'e-freight concept', under which freight could be traced in a paperless, electronic way throughout its journey across transport modes. This would facilitate safer, more reliable, more efficient and more expedient deliveries, while regulatory procedures would be simplified. Currently, widespread deployment of ICT in freight logistics is being hindered by a lack of standardisation between countries and transport modes. Nevertheless, the hope is that e-freight will take off and become more affordable with the development of emerging technologies such as radio frequency identification (see our LinksDossier on RFID) and the use of the Galileo satellite positioning system (see LinksDossier).