Revitalizing rail freight in the EU, an elusive goal

A report by the European Court of Auditors reveals that the European Commission’s goal of reviving rail freight and even tripling it by 2050 is simply unattainable in several ways. The primary reason is the absence of a clear EU policy requiring member nations to implement the required intermodality rules.

While the need for action to ensure a modal shift was identified in 2020, and at the European level there are plenty of strategic documents with many generalities, three years later the modal share of rail freight has not increased, as can be seen in the European Court if Auditors’ latest report on intermodal freight transport.

This lack of growth calls into question the feasibility of the European Union’s modal shift targets of a 50 % increase in rail freight by 2050, as set out in the European Strategy for Sustainable and Intelligent Mobility. It is therefore clear that a new approach is needed.

Obstacles to rail freight development

The EU Court of Auditors report highlights that road freight transport continues to dominate the European transport sector, with a 77 % market share, and despite commitments to greener modes of transport, it continues to grow.

According to the auditors, EU policy on the intermodality of transport systems is vague, outdated, and not binding on Member States, leading to continuing discrepancies and unfair competition between road and rail transport.

Although intermodal transportation would also imply the greening of freight transportation, this goal is challenging to attain because it is optional and different European nations establish their aims that aren’t always in line with EU goals. On the other hand, several EU regulations, such as the Directive on uniform norms for some forms of multimodal movement of products between Member States, restrict rather than promote the expansion of intermodal transport.

Another cause presented by the Court of Auditors’ report concerns the fact that EU Member States do not comply with the requirements for technical infrastructure set by European legislation, i.e. the revitalization of infrastructure for the use of longer trains of 740 meters in length, and thus road freight traffic is further stimulated.

In a joint statement with rail freight industry representatives, Karima Delli, President of the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism, urged the EU institutions to speed up the modal shift to large-scale rail transport, in particular for the implementation of DAC and ERTMS technologies.

Situation in Romania

Modal transport needs government involvement to be cost-effective and to compete with road transport, but the lack of a unified strategy to implement the rules at the European level means that the implementation of ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management and Control System) does not work throughout Europe. ERTMS is intended to replace the various national train control and command systems to ensure interoperability. In Eastern Europe, rail freight performance is affected. For example, in Romania, only about 70 km of the rail network is operated with ERTMS technology. Only a few locomotives out of several thousand operating on the Romanian rail network have this system implemented on board. Everything is at an early stage of implementation, as the implementation of this system on the rail network is directly dependent on the modernization of the railway infrastructure.