More than a decade ago, four competing rail freight operators — DBCargo, TX Logistik, SBB Cargo and BLS Cargo — decided to launch a common position paper setting out the need for better framework conditions to support the development of rail freight. The main problems identified at that time were a lack of customer focus and an unbalanced playing field compared to both rail passenger operations and road transport.
Jump forward to today, and the Rail Freight Forward (RFF) initiative launched with the dispatch of Noah’s Train in December argues that many of the same obstacles are still hindering the effective development of rail freight. RFF brings together more train operators, as well as shippers and logistics sector representatives. The scope and ambition of the campaign is much wider. The ambitious target is that 30 per cent of all international freight traffic in Europe should be moving by rail in 2030, compared to the current average of 16 per cent to 17 per cent.
That the RFF launch was held in Katowice to coincide with the United Nations-led COP24 climate conference, to flag up the vital role which rail freight needs to play in contributing to the battle against climate change, and the steps that are needed to bring that about.
Global climate targets
During COP24, the delegates formally adopted the so-called Paris ‘rulebook’, codifying the targets set out at the COP21 Paris conference in December 2015, where 195 countries agreed the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. This set a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperatures to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while aiming if possible to limit the increase to below 1·5°C to minimise the impacts of climate change.
As far as Europe is concerned, the EU’s ‘nationally determined contribution’ is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990. All of the key legislation for implementing this target had been adopted by the end of 2018. However, one outcome from the Katowice talks was a hint that more ambitious climate pledges would be needed before 2020. Rail freight could be part of the answer, not just in a few countries, but right around the world. Thanks to rail’s better energy efficiency and much lower emissions per tonne-km, modal shift is a key driver in reducing the impact of freight transport, within an increasingly multimodal framework.
Despite the over-riding imperative, national governments have rarely given much priority to rail freight (Fig 1). Financial support may be provided in some cases, but fair regulatory and tax treatment between modes, simplifying technical and operational rules or a sustainable financial model for investment seldom appear on the political agenda.