EUROPEAN Union (EU) efforts to encourage modal shift of intermodal freight from road to rail and inland waterways are failing to deliver suitable progress, a report issued by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on March 27 has revealed. The report also criticises the EU’s targets for modal shift of freight to rail as “simply unrealistic.”

Road continues to account for around 77% of all freight transport in Europe and its share is growing. Lorries are major polluters. However, rail and inland waterways are failing to grow their market share at the expense of road at the desired rate, jeopardising the EU’s climate change mitigation objectives.

“Europe is not on track to achieve its targets for green freight transport,” Ms Annemie Turtelboom, the ECA member who led the audit, said during a press conference to announce the report’s findings. “Trucks are still ruling the freight transport world and intermodal freight transport just cannot compete on equal grounds with road transport, which often is much cheaper, faster and more flexible.”

Turtelboom explained that the review was prompted by the European Commission’s (EC) clear desire to encourage modal shift to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport, as reflected in the objectives of the EU Transport White Paper of 2011, the European Green Deal of 2019 and the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy of 2020. EU funding supporting intermodal projects from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Cohesion Fund (CF), and the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) have totalled €1.1bn between 2014 and 2020, while the upcoming revision to the Trans-European Network for Transport (TEN-T) Regulation, which will be debated in the European Parliament this year, mean that the report’s findings could influence the legislative process.

The ECA audit was conducted in seven member states - Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Croatia - and examined 16 projects that had received EU funding up to 2020. It found that a number of these projects had been delayed and that they were not linked to achieving specific results in terms of modal shift.

The auditors also found that there is no dedicated EU strategy on intermodal freight transport and that the EU’s regulatory and financial support for intermodal freight is not sufficiently effective to provide a level playing field against road.

Instead, intermodal forms part of broader strategies on greening freight transport, including the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, released in December 2020, which sets a broad target of increasing rail freight volumes by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

However, the report says these targets were not based on robust simulation of how much modal shift could be achieved. They are also non-binding, and member states set their own national targets that are not necessarily comparable or aligned with EU goals. A lack of data prevents the EC from monitoring progress. “It is therefore impossible to assess whether combined national efforts are enough to meet the EU’s overall modal shift objectives,” the ECA says, adding that the EU’s 2030 and 2050 targets are “simply unrealistic.”

The auditors also argue that market regulation is failing to sustain policy choices. The current Combined Transport Directive, the only piece of legislation relating to intermodal transport, dates from 1992 and the report says it is ineffective in meeting the EU’s climate change mitigation ambitions. However, the EC’s efforts to reform the directive have not been accepted by member states.

The report also finds that other regulatory provisions, particularly those governing road transport, sometimes undermine the objective to promote intermodality. It says that capacity management and interoperability are likely to remain problematic in the absence of new legislative action in areas such as planning paths for rail freight, giving passenger trains priority over freight, and language requirements for drivers.

In addition, the report highlights delays by EU countries in meeting targets for infrastructure compliance, including the acceptance of trains reaching the European standard length of 740m. At present just half of the core TEN-T corridors can accept trains of this length.

Finally, the report finds that a lack of easily-accessible information on intermodal terminals and on real-time network capacity is dissuading logistics operators from opting for intermodal rail freight. The EC also lacks an overview of current terminals and of the terminals that still need to be built or upgraded to meet industry needs. The upcoming revision to the TEN-T Regulation does have the potential to improve this situation, however.

“If you have a strategy to have more green freight transport, then you need to make it happen,” Turtelboom says. “You cannot only have a strategy and in the end not see the results.”

The report makes four recommendations to improve the situation:

  • set targets for modal share along the Core Network Corridors and report on progress
  • prepare regulatory changes to improve the competitiveness of intermodal transport
  • lay the groundwork for a coordinated assessment by member states of intermodal terminal needs, and
  • assess the modal shift potential in cost:benefit analyses for EU-funded projects.

“Our recommendations might help to improve policy at the European level and also its relation with the member states,” Turtelboom says.

The May 2023 edition of IRJ will include a detailed report on the current state of play for rail freight transport in Europe and the pursuit of targets for modal shift.