Negative sentiment over combined transport in 2019

European combined transport had a difficult year in 2019. It was a year of reckoning after the optimism of the year before, concludes the UIRR. The industry association for combined transport published its annual report of 2019. The sector did record an increase in terms of intermodal tonne-kilometres, but only slightly, by 1.49 per cent. However, several events dampened the mood, is the overall conclusion.

The increase in terms of intermodal tonne-kilometres matched GDP growth, the report reads. The total number of intermodal consignments transported has remained largely unchanged. A historic height of over 8,8 million TEUs was transported by UIRR members in 2019. In the year before, this volume was 8.6 million. The 2018 report was marked with more optimism, the industry association acknowledges.

Operational challenges

What caused the downturn? Last year marked several operational challenges, explains Ralf-Charley Schultze, President of the UIRR. A terrible accident on the Great Belt Bridge in Denmark temporarily disrupted the transport of semi-trailers in pocket wagons, which is a growth segment of combined transport.

Between 2008 and 2017 more than 3 million craneable semi-trailers were carried in pocketwagons across Europe as the railway part of their multimodal journey. This type of transport was temporarily banned from the Danish railway network in January, which resulted in added costs for the industry.

But also landslides and flooding resulted in sensitive operational disruptions impacting cross-border relations, the president continues. Moreover, extensive and yet insufficiently coordinated works on the rail infrastructure adversely impacted punctuality performance. A prolonged railway strike in France and, by the end of the year, the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe caused a final hit.

Legislative setbacks

The operational challenges were coupled with several legislative setbacks. “The European parliamentary elections in May 2019 meant that the EU legislative process was temporarily suspended. The von der Leyen Commission took office with a delay on 1 November and soon thereafter a trialogue deal on Mobility Package 1, potentially harmful to combined transport, was reached, while the withdrawal of the CT Directive amendment proposal was also decided”, explains the president.

The CT Directive (combined transport directive) is a legislative piece which aims to support the shift from long distance road transport to long distance rail, inland waterways and maritime transport through economic incentives. The European Commission proposed amendments to the Directive, but these amendments have been debated for many years. Finally, the amendment proposal was withdrawn early this year.

“The withdrawal of the CT Directive amendment proposal needs to be viewed in the context of the Climate Emergency Declaration and the European Green Deal, both of which are outcomes of the European Parliament elections. Accordingly, the CT Directive will be reworked and brought back in 2021, bundled together with the revision of the Rail Freight Corridor and the TEN-T Guideline regulations in a ”Green Cargo Package””, said Schultz.

Outlook

The gradually deteriorating sentiment of the European intermodal sector experienced throughout 2019 will likely be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis during the years to come, the president expects. “Hopes are hinged on the increasing understanding of imbalances stemming from significant mode-based differences in the regulatory framework, which should be corrected in the spirit of fair competition, and the need to decisively address the climate and pollution challenges of our times.”

In other words, combined transport should benefit from the prioritised focus on energy efficiency and greening objectives, as it goes in hand in hand with a low carbon footprint and minimal adverse externalities. “The amendment of the Fuel Excise Duty Directive has also been promised for 2021, while the deliberations of the Eurovignette Directive should commence in the second half of 2020. Both are expected to contribute to correcting the imbalances that currently prevail in the regulatory framework of land transport in the EU.

“The designation of 2021 as the European Year of Rail on the one hand, while the coronavirus economic crisis on the other will frame the legislative work of the coming years”, he concludes.

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailFreight.com, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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