THE broad outlines of European Union (EU) policy on rail freight have been in place for some time now. With the aim of achieving a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 2050 to help make the EU a climate-neutral economy under the European Green Deal, in 2020 the European Commission (EC) published its Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy. Among the “milestones” that it sets for shifting traffic to more sustainable modes, the strategy says that rail freight will increase by 50% by 2030 and double by 2050.

The strategy itself noted that rail’s share of the inland freight transport market had fallen from 18.3% in 2011 to 17.7% in 2018. Over the three years since the strategy was published, rail’s modal share has not increased and currently stands at 16.8%. This is according to a declaration signed by the CEOs of freight operators and other European bodies that was issued on March 29, setting out what the EC and EU member states need to do if the target of a 30% modal share for rail is to be met by 2030, now less than seven years away.

“Whilst we called for a significant increase in the rail freight modal share in May 2020, this modal share is stagnating,” says the declaration. And this is a view shared by one of its signatories, the secretary general of the European Rail Freight Association (Efra), Mr Conor Feighan. “Rail freight growth has stagnated over the past decade,” he says. “We’re not on track here. Under the current system it will be difficult to reach these targets.”

Network capacity and its allocation is a key issue, with Feighan reporting that freight customers are currently being turned away as there is insufficient capacity to meet demand. “We do feel the demand is there,” he says. “We just need to build the system that can cope with it.”

“Sharing data between all stakeholders - operators, infrastructure managers, terminal operators - that would really be an improvement.”

Godfried Smit

With 50% of rail freight traffic in the EU crossing a national border, capacity allocation, timetabling and the planning and notification of route closures for infrastructure maintenance work need to be coordinated at the European level, involving infrastructure managers and freight operators and replacing the current ad hoc arrangements.

“We’re trying to operate international services with national networks,” Feighan says. Short notice of infrastructure work is a particular problem. “You’re really operating at the last minute. That is very frustrating for the customer.”

Freight customers are looking to find more sustainable transport options, and demand is growing, according to the secretary general of the European Shippers’ Council, Mr Godfried Smit, but the level of service provided by Europe’s freight operators still leaves much to be desired.

“It’s very difficult to book slots on the main corridors,” he says, “especially for block trains.”

And when paths have been obtained, service reliability and more accurate data on arrival times are crucial for today’s logistics chains relying on just-in-time delivery. If shippers are informed of any delays more promptly, they are able to make the necessary contingency arrangements.

“Sharing data between all stakeholders - operators, infrastructure managers, terminal operators - that would really be an improvement,” Smit says.

Erfa hopes that many of these issues will be addressed by a legislative proposal from the EC due to be published on June 21, under its initiative for better management and coordination of cross-border rail traffic. The EC is planning to amend Regulation (EU) 913/2010, which was intended to ensure “sufficient, flexible and high-quality infrastructure capacity” along EU corridors for freight operators, after these measures have been found to be insufficient to increase cross-border freight and support EU policy. Options under consideration have included refining the existing legal framework, for example to make mandatory for cross-border freight the use of the one-stop shops that provide a single point of contact for infrastructure capacity requests along the freight corridors.

Comprehensive modernisation and harmonisation of rules, processes and tools for freight have also been considered. These could include multi-year planning of capacity use by different types of traffic, more flexible allocation processes, additional performance-related incentive schemes, and stronger use of digital tools or “digital by default.” Proceeding towards stronger centralisation of decision-making and operational functions at the European level could include the creation of dedicated entities responsible for capacity management, economic regulation and regulatory supervision, or significantly expanding the powers of the EC to implement policy.

Unrealistic challenge

The EC is also working to revise Directive 2007/59/EC on the certification of train drivers, a programme that is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2024. A particular issue here for international freight is that revising the directive’s language requirements could remove the need to change drivers at international borders. Within the railway sector, opinion is divided on the issue. The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) have both said that requiring all drivers to speak a single European operational language - such as English - would be dangerous in emergencies and would constitute “an unrealistic challenge” for the sector.

Both organisations also agree that the general requirement for all operations should be language level B1, where the driver is able to talk in the language required by the infrastructure manager using memorised sentences. But while ETF believes that a minimum level of B1 should be required “on the entire European railway network,” CER favours exemptions for countries with more than one official EU language “as well as for border sections.”

Erfa clearly believes that change is necessary. “The borders will become bottlenecks if this is not tackled,” Feighan says. “We need to figure out a legislative solution to take pressure off the borders.”

English is the universal language of the air cargo industry, and Erfa says that it must quickly become the single operational language for rail. The association points out that its members are competing for business with road hauliers “whose drivers do not face the same stringent language requirements.” But as CER and ETF have pointed out, the staff training required would be a major undertaking for the railway sector, and particularly for infrastructure managers who would have to ensure that signallers, operations controllers and other personnel could communicate effectively with drivers in the new single operational language.

In the longer term, the benefits of introducing ERTMS are expected to include reducing the need for verbal communication between drivers and other operating personnel as more information is transmitted for display on the Driver-Machine Interface (DMI) in the cab. The declaration of March 29 says that ERTMS deployment must be viewed as a priority, as a successful rollout has “the potential to revolutionise railway management through enhanced capacity usage and network interoperability.” However, “the current strategy is not working,” says Feighan, who points out that it is difficult for the smaller private operators to make a financial case for fitting onboard equipment when the operational benefits are most apparent on the infrastructure side.

The declaration says that the deployment of both onboard and trackside ERTMS equipment should be publicly funded. Other technical solutions that are seen to be “essential enablers” of meeting the modal shift targets, and which should therefore receive financial support at EU level, include the Digital Automatic Coupler (DAC). By reducing the need to undertake dangerous tasks on the track when forming or splitting trains, the DAC is expected to improve the productivity of rail freight operations and reduce the need for posts that might be hard to fill in a tight labour market.

Short-term pressures

Alongside service reliability, the key issue for shippers when considering rail is cost, and rail freight’s position against cheaper road competition has been further weakened by recent cost rises following the invasion of Ukraine, and Russia reducing energy supplies to the EU. The fact that electricity prices have risen faster than diesel has forced some operators to switch to diesel traction and, according to the declaration, also risks reversing modal shift from road to rail. As a short-term solution, the EC should explore introducing a cap on the electricity charges paid by freight operators, the declaration says.

EU member states should also be allowed to support operators by reducing, waiving or deferring the payment of track access charges. One possible mechanism proposed by the declaration is to extend until December 31 2024 Regulation 2020/1429, introduced following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and which expired on December 31 2022. Infrastructure managers should be compensated for any losses. Ahead of the revision of EC guidelines on state aid for railway companies in the second quarter of 2024, the declaration says that sufficient state aid should be provided through well-targeted schemes that ensure a level playing field for all competitors in the single market. In order to avoid unfair competition between different modes, schemes to support rail freight should be proactively introduced on an EU-wide scale to prevent “a subsidy race” between member states.

Given the lack of progress in building market share, and the current difficulties adding to enduring issues such as the priority traditionally given to passenger services over freight, the prospects for rail freight in the EU may seem less than rosy. But the signatories to the March 29 declaration, including CER and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), point to the fact that while the EU “may now be entering a long-lasting phase of energy scarcity,” rail freight consumes seven times less energy than road and is nine times better in terms of CO2 emissions. There is no doubt huge political will to improve the sustainability of freight transport but, as the declaration says, the 30% modal share target only remains realistic if an ambitious approach is adopted by the institutions of the EU.