‘Road transport will keep dominating in Austria and Europe’

Image: Shutterstock. Oleg Proskurin

A study from the Institute of Transport Economics and Logistics at the University of Vienna of Economics and Business showed quite pessimistic results for the future of Austrian and European rail freight. “Road will remain the dominant mode of transport”, while rail freight will keep losing ground over the next couple of decades, making the goals set for 2030 and 2040 nearly impossible to reach.

The decrease in the market share of rail freight has been going on at least since 2019, the study said, and the gap with road freight is only going to get wider in the future. The only way to significantly decarbonise transport, thus, would be to focus on making road transport greener rather than boosting rail freight. Led by Univ. Prof. Dr. Sebastian Kummer, the document listed various reasons why rail freight will keep lagging behind its road counterpart.

First of all, railways across Europe do not enjoy the same uniformity that the roads do. “Different electricity standards, track gauges and train protection systems across Europe” are among the main handicaps for rail freight transport in Austria and Europe. Another impactful factor is the condition of the infrastructure and the general tendency to prioritise passenger services over freight across the Old Continent. Moreover, the market is changing, leaning towards more individual shipments which are much easier to carry out by truck.

Three scenarios

The study theorised three different rail freight growth scenarios. The first one implies that the modal split will remain the same as it was in 2019. The second one predicts that rail will grow by 2.2 per cent every year, which is what the Austrian Federal Railways predict as well. The final one, which is the most optimistic and least realistic, is based on the assumption that rail will account for 40 per cent of the modal split in 2040.

“The result of all three scenario analyses is that road will continue to be the dominant mode of transport”, the study conlcuded. If the 2.2 per cent yearly increase of rail freight is met, road freight is still estimated to grow over three times faster. Even with a 40 per cent market share of rail freight by 2040, road transport would have increased by 17 per cent by then, remaining the preferred transport mode. In order to meet the decarbonisation goals set in Austria and Europe by 2040, the study claimed, rail freight transport would have to double, which is not a feasible initiative.

Focus on making road transport greener

Kummer’s study also provided some data on what would help Austrian and European road transport to reduce their CO2 emissions by 2030, 2040 and 2050. Over the next six years, the main actors in improving the sustainability of road transport would be battery electrics and hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO). Hydrogen will keep playing a minor role, while liquefied natural gas “will continue to fail to gain ground”. Even with these developments, however, the goals set for 2030 will be missed by 14 per cent, according to the study.

By 2040, the potential battery electrics will significantly rise and hydrogen will catch up with HVO. “Measures such as the approval of higher truck capacities, the adjustment of driving bans” will not be as effective but are still indispensable, the study said. Once again, all these measures would not be enough to reach the goals set for 2040 in Austria and Europe, which will be missed by 7 to 14 per cent.

“If all potential is successfully exploited, climate-neutral road freight transport could be achieved by 2050”, the study underlined. This would mean that over 40 per cent of the road transport fleet would be powered by batteries, another 40 per cent each by hydrogen or HVO and the rest by e-fuels. However, the likelihood of this scenario does not seem to be very high.

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Author: Marco Raimondi

Marco Raimondi is an editor of RailFreight.com, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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