THE Austrian government’s objective of moving 40% of all freight on rail by 2040 is “unrealistic”, according to a leading Austrian academic. Speaking during an online presentation on June 4, Professor Sebastian Kummer said that this was simply unachievable.

He referred to research carried out by the Institute of Transport Economics and Logistics at the Vienna University of Business and Economics, which shows that to achieve the modal share target within the next 16 years, the amount of freight moved by rail would have to double. The institute forecasts growth of just 2.2%, even though overall freight traffic in Austria is expected to increase, on average, by 38% over the same period.

Kummer suggests that despite Austria’s geographic position favouring international transit freight, four key factors are mitigating against modal shift from road to rail:

  • market trends moving away from bulk freight which is ideally transported by rail towards small parcels under the “Amazonisation” of the logistics sector
  • technological disadvantages, including the long timescales required to introduce innovation such as the Digital Automatic Coupler (DAC) and different standards across the European rail network, including track gauge, traction power supply voltage and signalling
  • capacity and other bottlenecks in the Austrian network, including the lack of freight loops, staff shortages and priority given to passenger trains, and
  • international considerations, including deterioration of European network infrastructure, administrative hurdles for cross-border traffic and an increasingly competitive global market for freight carriers.

Research presented by Kummer covering the period 2019-23, including the Covid-19 pandemic, shows that road’s modal share increased by 3.5% to 71.8% of all freight moved in Austria, while rail’s share dropped to 26.6%, a fall of 3.7%.

Against this backdrop of rail struggling to increase both modal share and the amount of freight it carries, Kummer went on to consider whether Austria would be able to meet its net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050. His research concludes that the interim targets in 2030 and 2040 will not be met, with emissions exceeding targets by up to 15%.

But net zero by 2050 remains possible if the transport sector as a whole quickly adopts alternative fuel sources, according to the institute’s research. The biggest reductions in emissions will come from battery power (41%), hydrogen (25%), hydrogenated vegetable oil or HVO (22%) and e-fuels (up to 25%). E-fuels are synthetic fuels produced by combining hydrogen produced from the electrolysis of water with CO2 captured from the atmosphere.

“Decarbonisation can only succeed when all technological possibilities are exploited and road transport is fully decarbonised,” Kummer says.