This article is part of our special report Road transport’s future challenges.
EU policy- and law-makers have their work cut out for them once the incoming European Commission takes office. Incomplete legislative work and the need to address new challenges will keep transport officials occupied for some time.
On 10 September, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen revealed that Romania’s Rovana Plumb is in line to handle transport for the next five years.
If she is confirmed by a European Parliament hearing, pencilled in for 2 October, many of the pieces will be in place for the game ahead, given that the EU assembly’s transport committee is now established as well.
Notable items left on the agenda include the mobility package, rules on digital freight information and tweaking how vehicle emissions are calculated.
In von der Leyen’s mission letter to her candidate Commissioner, the president-elect tasked Plumb with drafting “a comprehensive strategy for sustainable and smart mobility” and contributing to a “zero-pollution ambition”.
More specifically, the transport Commissioner will lead the work on extending the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) to the maritime and aviation sectors. Currently only internal EU flights are covered by the carbon market and calls have been made in recent months for the Commission to draft an ‘aviation package’.
Von der Leyen also touches on the social side of transport in her instructions: “you should ensure that [transport] remains affordable, reliable and accessible, notably for those on low income or living in remote areas, and that passenger rights are respected”.
Talks are still ongoing on a number of issues, including on rail passenger rights rules. Disabled access to train travel is currently problematic, as passengers have to inform rail companies 48 hours in advance. MEPs want to change the law so that the limit is three hours.
While the next Commission’s attention to passenger rights is clear from von der Leyen’s mission letter, less clear is what focus will be given to the professionals who work in the transport industry, like coach and truck drivers.
Road transport stakeholders have called on the EU institutions to ensure a number of requirements are uniformly adopted across the bloc. That includes a minimum age of 18 for truck drivers, rule tweaks to help people get into the profession and flexibility for coach tourism.
Given the number of trucks on Europe’s roads, a driver shortage may not seem immediately obvious but the International Road Transport Union (IRU) insists that it is the “most acute” shortage in decades.
Kristian Kaas Mortensen, a manager at haulage giant Girteka, recently said his firm is “acutely aware of the driver shortage”, adding that “staff turnover within the sector is high but today some companies are facing levels of turnover as high as around 50%”.
Factors like stress and difficulties getting into the job in the first place contribute to the problem but Mortensen was confident that pending changes to EU rules will make a difference.
“I think the EU’s Mobility Package could have a very positive impact. By improving standards around rest time rules, safety infrastructure and access to the profession, it has the potential to drive up the standards of working life for drivers across the continent,” he explained.
Negotiations on the package are still ongoing. Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc told EURACTIV she is confident a solution can be found, despite the misgivings still held by a small number of member states.
But the road transport industry wants to go further still. The new Commission is already being urged to make sure there are enough parking spaces for truck drivers along the EU’s road network.
According to industry estimates, €6-7 billion is lost in cargo thefts every year in the EU. More than €1 billion of that figure is lost in Germany alone.
The IRU says there should be a European strategy, standards and a Commission implementing act to roll out more safe sites so that drivers do not have to park in insecure areas or on hard shoulders.
IRU’s Brussels office head Matthias Maedge told EURACTIV that the safety issue is a particular problem for efforts aimed at getting young women into the profession. The proportion of the EU workforce is currently a paltry 2%.
Transport is a crucial part of the EU’s decarbonisation drive. As the only part of the economy to still record rising emissions, the bloc’s policy-makers will have to address the issue head-on if climate targets are to be met.
An overall reduction goal for 2030, light-vehicle benchmarks, a first attempt at regulating truck emissions and a carbon-neutrality pledge will all play heavily on the mind of Commissioners and MEPs in this coming mandate.
Despite calls by initiatives like Shift2Rail and clean mobility associations, road freight transport is only expected to grow. Estimates talk of a 60% increase by 2050 if the current trend does indeed continue.
The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) advocates for more charging infrastructure, research into alternative fuels like hydrogen and tweaks to existing freight rules, in order to square the climate-demand circle.
That includes the use of modular trucks: high capacity vehicles that allow hauliers to deliver more goods per trip. ACEA calculates that CO2 emission savings of up to 27% can be made using these larger trucks.
“In order to allow the benefits of high-capacity vehicles to be felt right across the entire EU, we urge policymakers to enable the introduction of a high-capacity transport system across borders,” former ACEA boss Erik Jonnaert said in a statement earlier this year.
Some countries like Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden already allow high-capacity trucks under the European Modular System (EMS). But the scheme is not an EU-wide initiative.
As an example of the patchwork nature of rules on the issue, only some of Germany’s regions allow the modular system, meaning services are not possible across the whole of the Bundesrepublik.
There are also a number of other “low-hanging fruits”, according to Matthias Maedge, including cab design and more aerodynamic trailers.
In February, EU negotiators agreed on new rules for rounder cab designs, meant to reduce fuel consumption and eliminate blind-zones. The idea is to have them on the market by September 2020.
Safety was a clear tent-pole of the outgoing EU transport chief, Violeta Bulc, who confirmed on Monday (16 September) the Commission and member states’ pledge to halve road fatalities and serious injuries between 2020 and 2030.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]