Goods get on the train

EIM Secretary-General, Michael Robson investigates a one way journey to sustainable transport

Now that the Copenhagen summit is over and apparently the worst of the economic crisis has passed us by, it is high time for political talk on winning the fight against climate change and re-launching the European economy to be replaced by concrete actions. Transport should be a top priority, as it is the only sector in which greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise (by 26 per cent in the EU-15 between 1990 and 2005), while in all other industry sectors they fell. At the same time the transport sector offers significant room for improvements in efficiency, as each mode is still far from reaching their full emissions reduction potential.
As cross border freight transport continues to grow, rail freight has a key role to play in creating a mental shift in favour of a more sustainable transport system in Europe. For example, the relationship between rail and road transport should become increasingly complementary in the future, with rail using its obvious strengths over long distances and road freight playing its critical role for regional feeders and distribution.
The European Commission has supported this view by granting EU funds to shift freight off the European roads via the Marco Polo Programme. This instrument is aimed at improving the efficiency and environmental performance of the freight transport system across Europe.

Green, safe business friendly

Over long distances, rail freight transport has undeniable environmental advantages, as compared to road haulage. An average freight train can remove 50 truck journeys from the roads. Compared with carrying the same tonnage by road, rail produces at least 80 per cent less CO2 than road. Moreover modal shift from road to rail freight can work as an air cleaner, as rail produces less than 1/10 of the carbon monoxide and around 1/20 of the nitrogen oxide than by road.
These figures clearly show that shifting freight off the road to rail is an easy way to meet the EU’s climate targets and to move towards a decarbonised transport system, as called for by European Commission President Barroso in his guidelines for the next five years.
EU statistics also show that rail is by far the safest mode of transport. Therefore, shifting freight off the roads to rail would also make a contribution to the EU’s objective of halving road deaths over the period 2003-2010, by removing trucks from the European roads.
The overall objective of EU transport policy should be to let passengers and shippers make the best possible mobility choice. At the same time, customer satisfaction should be the guiding star for every transport operator. With regard to this, rail freight already has an important role to play in order to complement a road based supply chain.
A relevant commercial advantage of rail freight transport compared to road haulage is less direct exposure to fluctuations in fuel prices. The further electrification of rail lines will make this advantage even more apparent.
Moreover, avoiding road congestion results in an easy-to-plan and more reliable service as departure and arrival times are more predictable.

A Swedish success story

The Port of Gothenburg (Sweden) is a good example of intermodal connection for freight transport. It has the most frequently operated goods tracks in Sweden.
The electrified port railway provides environmentally sound transportation; 25 train shuttles connect the so-called RailPort Terminals with the most important logistics centres around Scandinavia. In addition to its environmental benefits, such a system leads to increased competitiveness and efficiency. Despite the recession, in May 2009, 31,280 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) passed through the rail terminal, an increase of 10 per cent over the previous year and an all-time best performance.

Making freight work better
It is clear, however, that rail freight transport is not yet a fully perfect solution. Much needs to be done to make it more attractive to demanding customers.
Creating a level playing field for all transport modes is a basic prerequisite in order for rail to show off its strengths in relation to other transport modes. The full internalisation of the external costs of transport is the first necessary step to achieve this objective. Charging each transport mode for the real costs imposed on society, such as climate change, pollution and accidents, would also help to implement the “polluter pays” principle.
Developing a broader network of market based rail freight corridors is also key to boosting rail freight and facilitating international rail freight transport in Europe. Such corridors should be supported by the coordinated deployment of all stakeholders involved. As far as infrastructure managers are concerned, long and medium term coordination of investment along the corridor would be essential to success. These measures should ideally be encompassed by a smart EU Regulation on freight corridors.
Technology is another key ingredient in raising the market’s appetite for rail freight. For example, IT systems are already available to have better interchanges and border formalities in order for rail transport to improve its competitiveness compared to other transport modes. Therefore it is quite natural to wonder why trains should stop at national borders, while trucks do not.

Looking ahead
Looking to the future, the rail sector should work hard to ensure a high level of quality and reliability in order to play a key role in the post-Copenhagen economy. For this to happen, coordination should be enhanced, not only within the rail sector, but also with other transport modes: this will result in the implementation of the co-modality principle, with obvious advantages for society overall.
In the rail sector, promoting the use of high speed lines for high value freight transport during off-peak hours would result in a more efficient use of such lines and in a quicker and more reliable transport of goods by train. Although this could be derided as a visionary objective, putting high speed freight into practice is just a matter of willingness, as no additional investment would be needed.
Giving preference to rail for transport of goods should also be one of the pillars of Green Corridors, which are expected to be developed in the near future. In fact, rail freight already embraces the basic concept of intermodal, competitive and environmentally friendly transport, which is the basis of the definition of Green Corridors.
As always, turning good intentions into reality is the tricky phase of any ambitious project. Further promoting the role of rail freight over long distance, reducing the dominant position of road haulage and thinking out of the box for the benefit of users and citizens are key challenges which all transport stakeholders should take up in order to create an integrated and sustainable transport system.
The climate is right for rail freight – let’s start the journey to sustainable transport!

Biography - Michael Robson
Michael Robson, Secretary General of the European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM), is a time-served railwayman having been in the industry for 35 years. During this time he has held various senior positions. He has experience of working in an integrated railway, British Rail, a private stock market listed infrastructure company, Railtrack, and a company limited by guarantee and privately financed, Network Rail.
Working in these three different environments has given him a unique insight into railway structures, their complexities and cultures. During his career, he has been involved in Operations, Performance, Timetabling, and Contract Management, Passenger and Freight Marketing and other retail activities in addition to the usual General Management and Project activities.
His previous post, prior to taking over as the EIM Secretary General, was as the Head of European Affairs for Network Rail where he was responsible for developing and implementing the Network Rail policy on European issues.
He sees his current role as promoting the railway, and in particular the interests of infrastructure managers, at all European levels including interfacing with the European Commission, Council of Ministers and MEPs. The other key role consists in ensuring that the EIM views are heard in the European Railway Agency (ERA) discussions on TSI development and in other standardisation bodies involved in this area.
Michael is also a member of the Chartered Institute of Transport & Logistics and the Institute of Management.

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