WITH transport commissioner Ms Violeta Bulc pronouncing 2018 as Europe’s “year of multimodality,” several recent events have highlighted how utilising different modes at various stages of the same journey can improve freight transport’s overall safety, efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Thankfully for European Commission (EC) representatives attending the Multimodal Year 2018 - Future of Transport conference in Brussels on May 16, most of the delegates raised their hand when asked whether they knew of the significance of 2018 for multimodality.

IntermodalHosted by the EC, European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), and International Union of Combined Road-Rail Transport (UIRR), the event sparked some lively discussion on the challenges of achieving greater multimodality in freight operations in Europe.

The EU is pinning its hopes on more long-distance freight leaving the continent’s road network and using its railways and inland waterways instead. The costs of this not happening are significant.

Already contributing 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions, transport could become the single largest emitter by 2030, overtaking energy, if nothing is done to shift to greener modes. Road congestion is also a major drain on economic activity. Lorries belching out fumes while stranded on the continent’s gridlocked highway network are responsible for a loss of e100bn, or 1% of the continent’s total GDP per year. And with an overall increase of 60% in total freight transport expected by 2050, a change in direction is required to deliver the safe, environmentally-friendly, and cost-efficient transport network that a globally-competitive Europe requires.

The EC set out its objectives for multimodal transport in its 2011 White Paper on transport. This includes shifting 30% of road freight travelling more than 300km to multimodal transport by 2030, and more than 50% by 2050. Yet limited progress has been made towards achieving these objectives. In particular, rail freight continues to struggle to increase its overall share of the market. The European network carried 18.4% of total rail freight in 2016, or around 400 billion tonne-km, a figure which has remained static since 2011.

But Europe isn’t giving up on rail freight just yet. The commission still sees it as a critical component of its vision of a multimodal transport network.

“Multimodality is not an end in itself,” said Mr Matthew Baldwin, deputy director of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Transport (DG Move), in his keynote address at the conference. “Even the most ideologically-driven shipper in the world does not wake up in the morning having dreamt of using multiple modes. But a smart shipper knows that using the different modal options is the right way. Bringing multimodality to its rightful place in the system will be crucial if we are going to achieve our common goals of a more sustainable and efficient transport system, especially for freight.”

Three challenges

There are three overarching challenges that multimodality and modal shift faces: operations, technical and regulation.

The sole legislation governing multimodal transport and incentivising a shift from road to other modes is the Multimodal and Combined Transport Directive. While still considered relevant, the directive has become outdated having not been revised since it was approved in 1992. The EC therefore considers amendments as part of its Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (Refit) critical if it is to achieve its modal shift targets.

The EC has carried out various consultations over the past four years resulting in recommendations for changes to the directive that it hopes will reinforce the effectiveness of the existing economic incentives found in road tax exemptions or reimbursements. These were presented to the European Parliament in November.

The commission’s report offers a revised definition of multimodality, which was considered confusing. It also updates shipment documentation regulations to include digitised versions, including PDFs. The EC also favours mandatory support for new trans-shipment terminal investment along the TEN-T network which will boost the availability and attractiveness of multimodal transport. It says that member states will be inclined to introduce additional economic support measures such as taxes and coordinate these among themselves and the commission.

The deadline for proposed amendments was May 16 when the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee (Tran) rapporteur, Ms Daniela Aiuto MEP, delivered a report, which contained 47 alterations.

Among the key terms of the revised definition proposed by Aiuto are:

  • incorporating national as well as international transport, and
  • increasing the road leg to no more than 150km of the journey as the crow flies from the initial and final terminal point, or 20% of the overall journey length, whichever is longest. The EC’s recommendations included the stipulation of “nearest suitable terminal,” which Aiuto’s report omits.

Tran will vote on the amendments on July 10, and Baldwin revealed that he expects ratification by the end of the year.

Mr Gzim Ocakoglu, deputy head of the maritime transport and logistics unit at the European Commission, said that while 40% of current intermodal transport can benefit from the tax incentives on offer, the goal with the amended legislation is to increase this to 70%. “Having added flexibility is critical to achieving this,” he said. “In 1998 there were proposed amendments to the Combined Transport Directive, which failed. We should really try and get it right this time.”

Nevertheless, UIRR has expressed some reservations at the conclusions reached by Aiuto’s team. While unconditionally endorsing 27 of the amendments and attaching comments to 17, the body recommends changes to three. This includes the possibility to exceed the maximum allowed road leg distance on either end of a combined transport operation to enable existing combined transport operations that are hampered by deficiencies in rail infrastructure or the absence of freight terminals to continue.

Similarly, the European Association for Forwarding, Transport, Logistics, and Customs Services (Clecat) supports the extension of the road leg, subject to strict conditions, but did praise Aituo’s report for providing greater clarity than in the commission’s proposal.

Many delegates were also keen to voice their reservations about the proposed changes to the definition of multimodal transport, pointing out that a one-size-fits-all model is unlikely to work across Europe. Some echoed Clecat’s view to increase the road leg while others questioned how the terms of the directive might be enforced. Discussions are underway at the European level concerning whether the member states will take on this responsibility or if it will come from the EU and some delegates expressed concern that introducing another layer of regulation that is not harmonised across Europe will defeat the purpose of the directive and incline shippers to use road. One delegate drew a round of applause for their pronouncement that if it is too difficult to reach a harmonised solution, then perhaps it is better to stick with what we have.

Addressing infrastructure shortfalls is a key element of the revisions to the directive with the EC seeing limited access to suitable infrastructure, particularly terminal facilities, as holding back multimodal growth. Baldwin did hint that revisions to the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) after 2020, which as well prioritising completion of the TEN-T network and enhancing digitalisation, should support improved multimodality, including terminal shortfalls. However, Ocakoglu said that careful consideration should be placed on what terminals are built and how they fit within the larger network - while one member state might perceive a certain solution as in their interest, it may not benefit the network as a whole.

“If you have fantastic large-capacity terminals with everything you need but there is a train every week, then the shippers will prefer to go to another place where there is a train available every day,” he said.

Mr Henk van Helvort, CEO of global logistics firm Samskip, which offers services by sea, air, land and rail, suggested that funding should go towards smaller terminals located outside city centres, which do not necessarily accommodate all wagon types but are sufficient for that region. He said by taking this approach, handlers could be offered a more reasonable price, which would encourage them to shift to intermodal. “Instead of paying €35 per unit, they could pay €15,” Helvort says. “If you place a simple terminal outside of the town, close to the motorway, you will solve a lot of our problems.”

As well as the availability of terminal infrastructure, problems with reliability and the general unpredictability of service is hindering rail freight’s attractiveness.

Shippers expressed frustration that even in the 21st century, many operators do not know the precise location and as a result the arrival times of the trains carrying goods for their customers. Likewise, rail operators running late trains are often forced to cancel other services due to a lack of rolling stock, pushing operating costs up. This in turn may encourage their clients to look to road, even if it is more expensive, because they cannot provide assurances to their customers that their goods will arrive on time.


Commenting on this situation, Mr Frank Andreesen, head of logistics advocacy at polymer manufacturer Covestro, presented figures from Hupac for the on-time reliability of its transalpine trains operating in Switzerland. The figures reveal reliability of between 44% and 71% across the 15-month period with on-time considered within three hours of scheduled arrival. Reliability during the period of the Rastatt debacle in summer 2017 was around 30%.

With Hupac estimating that more than 90% of these delays were the responsibility of the infrastructure manager or the railway, Andreesen called for better accountability for this performance, which he hopes will drive up standards.

“The chemical industry currently moves up to 20% of its products by rail but this could increase to around 30%, so a 50% increase in rail freight traffic serving the chemical industry, but only if we get the reliability right,” Andreesen says.

“Reliability starts with measuring, and that means KPIs. We don’t have that right now. We would like to pick two points on the map, two terminals, and we would like to know what is the reliability between these two points? We need this information to be available to the rail undertaking and the infrastructure manager because once they have that information, they will be in competition to improve. I am not seeing that right now. The information we have is too superficial.”

Train operators have traditionally been unwilling to use KPIs to scrutinise performance because many of the problems they experience are caused by infrastructure failures, which are out of their control. However, Andreesen argues that improving cooperation could help to overcome what are perceived as conflicting interests and alignments to the benefit of all concerned.

Andreesen also said that if freight is not on time, a shipper like Covestro needs to receive a revised estimated time of arrival for a train so they can inform their customers accordingly. “Reliability is security of supply, and security of supply translates into peace of mind, and peace of mind translates into customer confidence,” he said.

Of course, rail is playing catch up. Unlike aviation, road and maritime, rail integration has been restricted by national rules and standards. But with the EC pushing the Single European Railway Area to overcome these differences, epitomised by TEN-T and the gradual rollout of ERTMS, there are signs that the tide is turning.


Digitalisation is now widely considered as the enabler of improved cooperation and performance of the freight railway. And while some delegates bemoaned an apparent lack of progress, some projects are making a difference. For example, VTG’s work with Swiss start-up Nexiot to install devices fitted with GPS and geographic information system (GIS) on its 80,000-strong wagon fleet is already improving reliability to the extent that it is helping the fleet owner to reduce costs and secure new business.

Projects in the Shift2Rail joint technology initiative are also targeting improved rail freight performance. Mr Carlo Borghini, Shift2Rail executive director, told the conference that one of the programme’s six innovation programmes, or around €85m of the total investment, is on research that will directly benefit rail freight.

For example, he said that work is underway on improvements to marshalling yards and freight wagons as well as new innovations such as automatic coupling and propulsion systems. Shift2Rail is also looking at how it might implement logistics on-demand services in the rail sector, moving away from traditional timetables and how new business approaches might enhance the performance of rail freight services.

There is hope that Shift2Rail and the projects and technologies it will spawn can help to address the industry’s slow innovation cycle, which remains a hindrance to significant technological progress. Indeed, Mr Joris D’Inca, express and logistics sector lead for surface transportation at Oliver Wyman, said rail’s current 25-year innovation cycle is “ridiculous,” especially when compared with around seven years in the road and truck industry.

“We need to reduce the innovation cycles and to do that you need to reduce the cost of the equipment,” D’Inca says. “It cannot be in the future that you pay €3-4m for a locomotive. It should be half of that in order to enable the replacement of the locomotive much quicker.”

Rail is also held back by some actors’ reluctance to share the data necessary to develop a harmonious network, which could help to improve performance and reliability. Developing seamless IT interfaces where data is shared easily between different actors, although difficult to achieve, should be a priority, according to D’Inca.

Unprecedented computing power, artificial intelligence and enhanced connectivity are all concepts that offer rail the capability to dramatically improve performance. D’Inca said this technology can help railways to break the yearly planning process, “which has been like a virus,” and shift to a rolling plan based on demand.

However, securing the right people with the skills and expertise to deliver the level of technological change that the industry requires within a reasonable timeframe remains a major challenge. Digital skills and expertise are in high demand and the industry must find a way of securing the best and the brightest. It is a similar situation for legislative expertise.

“If you are doing international freight and trade, you need to have knowledge on the different legislation and regulation,” says Clecat director general, Ms Nicolette van der Jagt. “As we have seen with Brexit, we have an enormous shortage of people with competence in customs. It is not only digitalisation but it is the compliance part.”

Deploying new technologies that improve efficiency and performance will doubtless prove critical to achieving a level playing field between the different modes, which is an underlying objective for the EC and its efforts to update the Combined Transport Directive.

The EC is backing rail as an environmentally-friendly mode to take more and more long-distance trucks off Europe’s roads. And with legislative changes and further investment seemingly on its way, the industry has an opportunity to secure significant modal shift, which it must take.

However, as Mr Stephan Neugebauer of BMW Group and chairman of the Road Transport Research Advisory Council, revealed, the road sector is not standing still. Significant progress is being reported on developing cleaner fuels and smarter driving practices, including automatic convoying, which he says will help to save lives and boost road freight efficiency.

Rail then must help itself by stepping out of its comfort zone and address the reliability problems that continue to hinder performance. The EU might be looking towards rail at the moment, but with volumes static, the sector is currently failing to deliver. And if this continues, the union could conceivably shift the goal posts and back other means of transport. It is therefore now or never for rail to become the backbone of multimodality in Europe.


Intermodal innovations increase the attractiveness of multimodal transport

NEW technologies are inevitably aiding the push to increased multimodality in Europe and around the world. And with demand for intermodal freight transport set to grow, Irish manufacturer Combilift presented several new innovations which it believes can enhance this process during the inauguration of the company’s new factory in Monaghan on May 3.

For example, Combilift’s Slip Sheet technology is designed to improve the container loading and unloading process and prevent shippers from simply stuffing containers, which could damage goods.

The slip sheet is made of a hard-wearing steel and the system can accommodate a 30-tonne load. Enabling pre-loading of goods, a hydraulic cylinder is used to insert and remove the sheet along the floor of a 40, 30 or 20ft container with the process taking around seven to eight minutes to complete. The inaugural customer for the product is Easy Logistics, Romania, and the manufacturer is hopeful that the solution can benefit shippers and logistics companies looking to improve the efficiency of their operations.

Combilift also presented its range of customisable straddle carriers at the new factory, a market which it entered in 2010.

Among the highlights of its applications for the intermodal market is a project with Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) where the operator is using two of the company’s carriers at either end of the Gotthard Base tunnel to transfer containers to and from lorries and flat wagons.

Combilift has also worked with CCT Moer Dijk in the Netherlands where it has installed a modular machine, which works across two adjacent tracks and a road lane and is currently serving four 500m-long trains per day each with around 37 containers. Critically the straddle carrier system is not reliant on rails, meaning there was no need to invest in infrastructure or conduct significant civil works at the terminal. Combilift believes customised solutions are potentially attractive in a changing terminal market where the emphasis is increasingly on improving efficiency and handling smaller loads quickly in more confined areas.

“The growing container market presents opportunities for Combilift,” says Mr Martin McVicar, Combilift managing director. “Our approach to business is to listen to the customer and identify the challenges they have and attempt to come up with solutions. We want to standardise components but offer customised solutions.”

Automated guided vehicle

Chemical company BASF used the Multimodality Year 2018 - Future of Transport conference to present its concept for an Automated Guided Vehicle, a fully-automatic tank wagon transfer vehicle, which is designed to improve last mile transfer at its plants.

Fitted with 32 wheels and eight steerable axles, the 16.5m-long vehicle is able to operate at 30km/h when used in tele-operated mode from a central control centre, and 5km/h when in complete automated mode. The vehicle has a payload of 78 tonnes and is designed to accommodate both standard 26ft tank wagons and 45 and 52-ft tank wagons developed by BASF and Van Hool, Belgium. The vehicle is steered using transponders embedded in the road surface and uses standard sensor technology developed in the automotive industry for object detection as well as video cameras visible to operators in the control centre.

BASF plans to introduce the new vehicles at its Ludwigshafen site from this summer and the objective for the technology is to reduce the transfer time from the rail terminal to the plant’s loading station from around 22 hours at present to one hour.