December 6, 2023

di Francesco Ramella

Cars and trucks are polluting, dangerous, generate congestion and consume a lot of energy. Trains are clean, safe and energy efficient. A single convoy can replace up to 500 cars or more and 50 trucks. Yet, when people and goods travel on land, most of them stay away from trains.

The so-called “modal shift”, a pillar of the European transport policy did try to bring about change. The 2001 White Paper European Transport Policy 2010: time to decide argued that “Europe must bring about a real change in the Common Transport Policy. The time has come to set new objectives for it: restoring the balance between modes of transport and developing intermodality”. Since then, more than 1,000 billion € have been transferred from the European taxpayers to the rail companies and the local authorities in order to attain those goals.

It has been a failure. The share of railway passenger transport rose from 6.9% in 1995 to just 7% in 2019.

As for freight, in the same period the share fell from 15.6% to 12.0%. But there is more. The traditional measure is the “tonne-kilometre” (ton-km), i.e. the mass of the goods transported multiplied by the distance they travel. But if one considers the value of the shipment, the figures are much lower. For example, in Italy the rail’s share of land transport is around 11% in tonne-km and only 2% in value.

According to the Italian ministry of transport, if rail freight traffic doubled (it has remained the same in the last twenty years), road freight traffic would fell by a mere 2%, and the impact on road congestion would be negligible.

Moreover, congestion is mainly a local problem, concentrated around the largest urban areas. Thus, and with the exception of maritime ports, even if some freight shifted to rail, the first and last mile would still be by truck. In these cases, however, trucks would travel longer distances than otherwise, since there are few intermodal loading/unloading points. This explains why no relevant modal shift can be achieved.

The advocates of modal shift often quote the case of Switzerland, where 74% of the freight traffic through the Alps is on rail. Many commentators argue that this is thanks to “the project of the century”, the new railway tunnels – Lötschberg (opened in 2007) Gotthard (2016), and Ceneri (2020) –  that cost 18 billion €. Yet, freight traffic was already by rail before the tunnels were built, when custom procedures were a serious problem for trucks, there were no available motorways and road conditions could turn difficult in winter.

In fact, when 1980 the Gotthard road tunnel was opened, the railways’ share started to decline.

Although the Gotthard and Lötschberg projects did make rail more competitive, two other factors played a role:

1) First, freight vehicles with a total weight of more than 3.5 tons had to pay a “performance related charge”, on top of the fuel duty and a lump-sum tax. As a result, a heavy vehicle going from Italy to Germany today pays around 300€
2) if the truck is loaded onto a train, it receives a subsidy of 50€.

If the two modes of transport were on a level playing field, the balance would be much less favourable for the rail, even if one took the pollution externalities into account. This is indeed what one observes when examining traffic between Italy and Austria.

It has also to be noted that since 2007, the volume of the goods crossing the Swiss Alps has remained almost constant, and the number of trucks transferred from the road to the rail is around 210,000 per year, or less than 700 per day.  It’s a very small number, which corresponds to less than 1% of the kilometres travelled by all the trucks on the Swiss roads.

The impact is even less important if one considers the improvement of air quality, an issue that in the early 1990s encouraged policymakers to try to lower road traffic. In fact, the emissions of today’s vehicles are about 90% lower than those of thirty years ago. That explains why air quality largely improved along the Alpine crossings between Italy and France, where the share of road transportation is 93%.

To conclude, it is probably time to rethink the transport policy for Europe. The recent German Constitutional Court ruling that freezes rail infrastructure funding may be a first step in the right direction.