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‘Rapid road developments could lead to reverse modal shift’

The classic modal shift has received much attention in recent years in order to get more cargo from the road to rail or barge. However, developments in road transport are moving so fast that an inverse modal shift is imminent. This is the conclusion of a Dutch research firm TNO.

“There is a chance that road transport will score better than the other modalities on all objectives of the modal shift, such as sustainability and traffic flow. This could result in a reverse modal shift: a shift from rail and inland shipping to the road. The question is whether we mind. Because a modal shift is not an end in itself”, said Jaco van Meijeren of TNO during Multimodal Online 2020 last week.

Synchromodal transport

A few years ago, public policy looked more at synchromodal transport; the best modality of the moment. This gives the possibility, for example, to shift cargo to the road in the event of low water. But the sustainability agenda has shifted policy more towards the classic modal shift.

“We have seen for years that there is no shift in the share of modalities. Despite all policy, the share of rail and barge remains the same. I expect that technological developments will have a major impact on the logistics system and the modalities mix. Especially because the pace of innovation will differ per modality”, explains Van Meijeren.

Autonomous driving

“There is a lot of attention for autonomous driving with trucks or truck platooning. Experiments are carried out with trucks without a cabin, and thus without a driver. Once that becomes a reality, transportation costs drop by 45 per cent. That means a significant competitive advantage for road transport.”

Sustainability is also rapidly developing in road transport. “We see many developments in the field of electric driving, both with batteries and hydrogen power. Initially mainly in city logistics, but also for long distances. This means that road transport is moving towards zero emission as well as low-noise operation. If we combine both these developments with digitisation to bring together supply and demand 24 hours a day, a possible future scenario will arise in which road transport becomes cheap and sustainable. Moreover, it can take place at night because it is autonomous, an important advantage to solve the congestion issue. In the meantime, we achieve everything we want to achieve with the modal shift. ”

Incidentally, the same developments are underway in rail and inland shipping, although innovations seem to be accelerating in road transport. “If more digitisation and coordination efforts were made between parties in rail and inland shipping, those modalities would be used more”, Van Meijeren expects.


Even now, a classic modal shift is not always smooth sailing, said Fred Hooft, global logistics manager at Swinkels Family Brewers during the online conference. He would actually like to transport Bavaria beer to the north of France by barge, but that is still going by road. However, the beer brewer has good experiences with multimodal transport to Italy from the inland terminal in Veghel.

“We choose this transport mode because of the stability and the availability of sufficient capacity. The big advantage of rail transport to Italy is that you can move with a much higher payload. We are at 27.5 half tonnes towards Italy. That is a great advantage for us because beer is very heavy to transport. During the corona crisis we had no problems with border restrictions. There was also sufficient capacity.

“We are actually looking for a similar transport solution in France”, he continues. Until now, we always go there by road to our warehouse near Lille. We are looking for other parties to set up a multimodal route to the north of France. It is strange that we manage to organise such solutions on the relatively short distances in the Netherlands, while the same does not work in France, less than 500 kilometers away.”

Pallets over water

Michel van Dijk, Logistics Director at Van Berkel also sees opportunities to make rail and barge more attractive for shippers. “I still see a major challenge in transporting pallets over water and using ships that move empty between the Netherlands and Northern France. It would be great if we could connect the existing networks of logistics service providers.”

An important condition for doing more with rail or barge is that a shipping party has large and stable volumes, says Jeroen Bolt, programme manager Lean & Green Off Road. He tries to bring parties together in order to bundle cargo for rail or water. “Parties often do everything by road. They may think that transport by train or barge is slower. Transshipment is relatively expensive, so there must be a door-to-door solution. This is not possible via main ports such as Rotterdam or Antwerp. You can work with pallets in inland shipping, but this is not suitable for all cargo. Goods could be damaged more easily. That is why we mainly focus on container flows.”

Inland ports

The inland ports are in any case ready for an increasingly classic modal shift, Jeroen van den Ende, director Port of Zwolle, said during the online conference. “We have sufficient capacity to transport more cargo from road to rail and barge. We use logistics brokers to enthuse companies in the region and to see whether it is possible to make the shift. We already do a lot through barge. The last mile is sometimes a bit too far away for companies, so it is easier to use a truck for everything. But there is room for improvement too. For example, a channel has to be dug to northern France, so that we can make some more progress there.”

Reliability and predictability of the connection are particularly important for shippers in their choice of modality, says Steven Lak, chairman Evofenedex. “Third is price, but this is less dominant.” Problems exist in all modalities. The road has to deal with congestion during rush hours, inland shipping with congestion in the ports. The rail sector has to resolve infrastructure bottlenecks more quickly and, as far as Lak is concerned, there must be more attention for international rail connections.

“Modal shift is sometimes more than just moving from road to rail or inland shipping. It also means looking at your entire logistics chain. For example, the volumes of paper manufacturer Parenco were actually too small for inland shipping, but has decided to increase its factory stocks a bit to fill an entire ship.”


The problem with the classic modal shift is that it sometimes takes a long time before concrete action is taken, says Hans Willem Vroon, director of RailGood. “We talk a lot about modal shift. But you just have to do things. We can now finally operate 740 meter long trains. We’ve been talking about that for 25 years. And the government must ensure a level playing field. The rail sector spends a lot of kilometer fees that other modalities do not have to deal with. A lot of corona money is used in Europe to fund state-owned companies. That hinders the market forces that are necessary to compete with road and water.”

“We must do our best to tempt medium-sized shippers to come to the railway and to develop new services. Because it is no longer possible to earn dry bread to Italy, there is too much competition. The future lies in new destinations”, Vroon predicts.

Author: Bart Pals

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