From the roads to the rails: European freight transport and green logistics

European Mobility Atlas 2021

For about two decades, the logistics industry has become more serious about sustainability. Although a validated definition of “green logistics” does not yet exist, the reduction of CO2 emissions can be regarded as an important part of the concept. In freight transport, heavy goods vehicles (HGV) on roads are by far the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), while rail is the smallest. Nevertheless, the shift from road to rail – a central target of EU transport policies – struggles to get off the ground.


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Every year there are new success stories: in 2020, more than 12,000 trains travelled between China and Europe, according to China's Customs Authority, carrying more than a million containers to 21 countries and 92 European cities. The rail freight traffic between Asia and Europe has grown six-fold over the last five years. Nevertheless, it plays a minor part with regard to overall transportation figures, with around two percent. In comparison, 90% of goods between China and the EU still go by sea, and around six percent by air. Yet in the German inland port of Duisburg, the central European hub on the so-called “new silk road”, rail-based freight traffic with China grew by approximately 70% just in 2020. This rapid growth is expected to continue into the foreseeable future, according to a study commissioned by the International Union of Railways (UIC).

These facts and figures could suggest a bright future for rail – and for the climate. Shippers, one could assume, could rethink their supply chains and (re)discover rail. But a deeper look into the reality of European transport is less thrilling. Modal split from road to rail is still unsatisfactory and – even worse – has hardly changed over the years. While in EU transport policies rail has been prioritised for several legislative periods, its share in freight remains beneath 20% (17.9^ for the EU-27 in 2018).

Road transport continues to have the largest share (72.1%) of EU freight transport performance among the three inland transport modes (besides road and rail, inland waterway transport represents 5.7%). This is disastrous, because an increase of freight transport utilizing rail would help to combat climate change. Freight trains emit 80% less CO2 than HGV per tkm (one ton transported in one kilometre). Besides that, they cause fewer external costs (accidents, air pollution, climate change, noise, congestions, well-to-tank emissions and habitat damage) according to a study presented by the European Commission in May 2019.

However, external costs are not reflected in user costs. That is why transport by train is often more expensive than by road and not an option for many shippers. Apart from the price, their concerns include reliability, the capacities available, information management, average speed and flexibility.

Freight by rail is transported in three different ways: as single wagonloads, in block trains, or as combined (or intermodal) transport . The latter starts, in most cases, with a truck taking a container a short distance to a terminal. There the box is trans-shipped on a train, which transports it over a long distance to another terminal. There it is reloaded to a truck for last-mile-transport. While the market share of rail freight has not changed in Europe as a whole, intermodal rail is responsible for nearly half the tkm produced by freight trains. Combined (or intermodal) transport is the most dynamically growing segment of rail transport, and it is regarded as the largest, most important production system of rail freight.

Block trains run from A (e.g., ports) to B (e.g., steel works) without being shunted. That makes them relatively profitable and block trains with chemical products, coal, iron ore or wood are highly competitive with road usage. Their main competitors are barges on inland waterways.


Single wagonload represents a market share of about 27% in 13 key EU countries – with significant differences among them. While Germany, Austria and Czechia reach about 40%, the single wagonload share on total rail freight in Italy is lower than 15%. This type of rail production is by far the most complicated, because it needs a lot of shunting. For example, a single wagon full of paper sent by a paper mill north of Gothenburg in Sweden to its subsidiary plant near Mainz in Germany, is first taken from the mill to the shunting yard of Gothenburg. There it is put on a train to Malmö, where it is shunted again and placed in a freight train to Hamburg-Maschen, the biggest marshalling yard in Europe. In another shunting process, the single wagon is put onto a train to Cologne-Gremberg, followed by another one to Mainz-Bischofsheim, from where a locomotive takes it to its destination. The journey takes about 40 hours, and this example shows the complexity of single wagonload production chain, combined with an equally complex cost structure, obviously.

Besides the complex and expensive production of single wagonload, rail, in general, faces a whole host of structural disadvantages, which affect freight even more than passenger services. Since World War II, transport policies in nearly all EU countries have favoured road. Rail has been suffering, until recently, from a lack of necessary investment in infrastructure. Therefore, there is no dedicated network for freight trains. As such, the profitable length of 740 metres per train cannot be operated all over the EU. The obstacles to freight trains, especially to those running internationally and over long distances, include different national rules, different signal and safety systems, different track gauges, different voltage systems, missing deviation routes in cases of disturbances on the main line, and lack of a common railway language (like English in aviation) which is accepted in all countries. These obstacles do not exist for rail’s main competitor – the truck.

EU transport policy has been trying for nearly two decades to boost rail and to compensate for the long disregard of the sector. Four railway legislation packages have tried to promote the position of rail. A new legislation for road transport will attempt to eliminate unfair advantages of the sector in the intermodal competition.

So far, all these efforts have not been able to improve the market share of freight trains. It is only satisfactory in the three Baltic states, where rail is the pivotal freight transport mode: with more than three quarters in Latvia, more than two thirds in Lithuania and more than 40% in Estonia.  This is due to transit from Russia and Belarus to the ports of these countries, which remain important gates to Western Europe.

Back to the success stories: the train from China arrives at Duisburg after a 13-day journey through five countries bridging more than 10,000 kilometres. It shows the potential rail can have in freight transport. Without problems, it has twice changed the track gauge and it arrives on schedule at the border between Belarus and Poland. There, at the door to the EU, is where problems start, complain shippers and train operators. Because in the EU, freight transport by rail still remains well behind its potential.