The EU can achieve its climate targets with intermodal freight transport

Ralf-Charley Schultze
Ralf-Charley Schultze is President of the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR).

Combined door-to-door transport via rail, road and waterways is the future of sustainable commercial transport in Europe. This intelligent and seamless linking of the three classic modes of transport can reduce greenhouse gas emissions – compared to full long-distance transport by truck – by up to 90 percent and increase energy efficiency by up to 70 percent.

Due to these benefits, intermodal freight transport can make a decisive contribution to achieving the EU’s ambitious climate targets and reducing CO2 emissions by 55 percent by 2030. One key reason is that intermodal transport does not require the goods themselves to be reloaded. Instead, only the loading unit (container, swap body or semi-trailer) changes transport mode: for example, from the short-haul truck to the climate-friendly long-haul rail link and back again.

This enormous potential of combined door-to-door freight transport is not a distant dream of the future but lived practice. For example, since September 12, 2022, there has been a continuous rail connection of more than 2,000 kilometers from the Barcelona intermodal terminal via Duisburg to Poland to the Poznań and Łódź transshipment terminals there and back again, three times a week.

Combined freight transports have been running for longer and even more frequently between Luxembourg and Le Boulou in southern France (25 times a week), Trieste (twelve times), Lyon (six times), Antwerp, Kiel and Rostock (three times), and Valenton (once). The freight train to Le Boulou alone is up to 850 meters long and transports up to 60 semi-trailers. Today, almost 90 percent of intermodal freight trains already cross at least one border, covering an average of around 920 kilometers. This makes combined transport the dominant form of long-distance cross-border freight transport in Europe.

Improving rail infrastructure

An important time to decisively advance intermodal freight transport is the EU negotiations currently underway to revise the regulation on guidelines for the development of a trans-European transport network (TEN-T). Since, according to the Green Deal, the market share of rail freight transport is to double by 2050, the infrastructure required for this must function much better than it does at present.

Against this backdrop, we welcome the EU Commission’s plans to adapt the rail infrastructure accordingly. The plans include:

  • a mandatory infrastructure for train lengths of 740 meters,
  • a greater transport weight (up to 2000 tons gross; 22.5 tons axle load),
  • the P400 loading gauge,
  • better punctuality (90 percent of trains should not be more than five minutes late),
  • the crossing of an EU internal border within 15 minutes
  • and, above all, the modernization of existing intermodal transshipment terminals or the construction of new terminals to expand capacity.

In order to realize these plans, it is necessary that the EU member states and the European Parliament support this expansion of the transport infrastructure planned by the European Commission in favor of intermodal freight transport. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case in the past.

Although the shift of freight transport from road to rail has been a clear political goal of the European Union since 2001, the market share of road freight transport has since risen to around 76 percent – around half of this in long-distance freight transport. With the unfortunate consequence that the transport segment has increased its CO2 emissions – the only European industry to do so. If the EU wants to achieve its energy and climate targets, this trend must not only be stopped but reversed.

Prioritizing ‘energy trains’

Here, the EU could take its cue from a current regulation issued by the German government: The Energy Security Transport Ordinance (EnSiTrV), published in mid-September, gives absolute priority to freight trains transporting coal, oil and liquefied gas in rail transport in order to use these “energy trains” to make up for the supply gap created by the loss of Russian pipeline gas. Numerous intermodal freight trains are also currently operating in Germany as “energy trains” by carrying liquefied gas in tank containers, for example. It would therefore be an important step if the EU also recognized intermodal freight trains as “energy trains” and gave them priority on the rail network.

Conclusion: Combined door-to-door transport is a doubly positive influencing factor for the realization of the EU decisions to curb global warming. On the one hand, it makes it possible to shift freight transport to energy-efficient and low CO2 means of transport and, on the other hand, to significantly reduce the consumption of diesel in freight transport and logistics. Additionally, intermodal transport relieves congested roads and residents, increasing labor efficiency, as one train driver can replace up to 50 truck drivers in long-distance transport. And intermodal transport creates jobs with high added value as well as an appropriate work-life balance in every link of the transport chain.


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