EU seeks to shift freight to rail and shipping

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The Commission has presented plans aimed at making freight transport in the EU more efficient and sustainable, through improved logistics and by promoting a more frequent use of cleaner modes of transport such as rail and water transport.

The Commission presented, on 18 October, a series of initiatives aimed at making the transport of goods by rail and shipping more attractive, in the hope of relieving Europe’s increasingly congested roads. 

  • More efficient supply chains 

The Freight Transport Logistics Action Plan places a key focus on measures to facilitate the use of several transport modes in one trip – so-called co-modality – notably by improving connections between the different modes, investing in modern trans-shipment hubs, establishing common European standards on loading units and creating a single transport document for all carriage of goods, irrespective of the mode. 

  • A helping hand for railways 

The Commission’s Communication on a Freight-Oriented Railway Network proposes giving Europe’s declining rail sector a much-needed boost, by tackling a number of efficiency, reliability and competitiveness problems. 

Key measures will include harmonisation of train lengths and loads to increase inter-operability between member states and avoid freight trains being stopped and delayed at borders due to member states’ differing standards. 

The Commission also wants to put an end to an existing priority given to passenger trains on lines with mixed traffic when networks are congested, in the hope of reducing freight train delays and increasing the reliability of deliveries. 

It hopes that such measures, along with increased cooperation among member states and infrastructure managers, will help to achieve veritable “freight-oriented corridors”, with reduced transport times and an increased punctuality thus more apt to compete with road transport, especially for heavy loads and long distances. 

According to the Commission’s plan, each member state should be involved in at least one such corridor structure by 2012. 

  • Creating a single maritime transport area 

Shipping – the most environment friendly and energy-efficient mode – also receives particular attention, with plans to increase capacity at seaports and create a genuine “European maritime transport area” by eliminating some of the lengthy administrative procedures, including documentary checks and physical inspections by customs, health, veterinary and immigration control officials, that continue to apply to shipments between European ports, in the same way they do for shipments to third countries. A public consultation on this will be launched on 22 OCtober 2007.

  • Allowing ‘monster trucks’? 

The Commission’s Logistics Action Plan also suggests “assessing the need to review the current limitations of road vehicle weights and dimensions”, a move that could open roads to 25-metre long, 60 tonne ‘modular trucks’ that are currently banned in most member states. 

While some say such trucks would enable road transport operators to carry larger volumes without increasing the number of trips, rail operators fear they will drive the price of road transport down even further, generating unsustainable demand (EURACTIV 23/07/07). 

Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot said: "The integration of these modes of transport into efficient logistics chains is essential in order to reconcile the economic efficiency and long-term development of transport." 

According to the Commission, the development of rail freight is a "major challenge" as it can make a "significant contribution to the construction of an efficient and sustainable transport system". It adds that the creation of corridor structures "will help to optimise the use of financial resources for the purposes of investment, simplify administrative and technical procedures at borders and ensure better continuity of service by the infrastructure across the member states". 

As regards shipping, the Commission states: "It is paradoxical that goods shipped by sea between ports as close together as Antwerp and Amsterdam should be considered to have left the territory of the European Union whereas lorries can drive unhindered throughout Europe…The fact that modes of transport should be treated differently is no longer justified. It penalises maritime transport, which is cheaper and has less of a negative impact on the environment, even though maritime transport should be used to cut the number of lorries on an increasingly congested road network." 

Railway operators and infrastructure management companies welcomed the Commission's plan as a "major step forward for rail freight". Nevertheless, the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies said the timeline for establishing rail corridors "could be more ambitious". "There is no time to lose if we want to enhance rail freight capacity at the same pace as volumes are growing," said Director Johannes Ludewig. 

However, the commercial sector, represented by EuroCommerce, criticised the absence of a link between the Logistics Action Plan and the recently published Green Paper on Urban Transport (see LinksDossier). "It still remains unclear which actions the EU wants to take for example to tackle the congestion problems in urban areas," commented the organisation, adding: "Since many commerce activities, in particular for smaller businesses, take place in city centres, it is of high importance that the Commission works on solutions to make last mile delivery more efficient. Like it or not, the last mile delivery to the shops will (nearly) always be by road and therefore urban distribution - carried out by trucks and vans – must be guaranteed to ensure deliveries in local shops. A proper balance between accessibility of goods and customer traffic must be ensured." 

Freight transport has grown by more than 30% in the past ten years and is expected to see similar levels of growth over the next decade. 

At the moment, a majority of goods are carried on Europe's roads, but such an increase in volume will provide a major challenge to the road transport industry, which is already struggling to deal with rising oil prices and congestion levels, as well as increasingly stringent environmental standards aimed at tackling climate change and other forms of air and noise pollution. 

  • 22 Oct. 2007: Launch of a public consultation on the state of play of maritime transport and the creation of a 'European maritime transport area without barriers'.

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