ERFA’s vision for Year of Rail: more action, less talking

The European Year of Rail should work as the starting point, where the sector will provide solutions rather than general arguments for burning issues such as the modal shift. This is how the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA) looks at 2021, the year when rail transportation is in the spotlight more than ever.

“Continuing from where we left off in 2020 is essential”, because, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, the potential of rail freight transport became apparent to everyone, said Conor Feighan in an interview with Especially after such a year, now is the right time for the sector to move from theory to practice. “Successfully understanding and communicating the strategic importance of rail freight constitutes one of the main goals”, says Conor Feighan, Secretary General of the association.

Address the right audience

However, communicating this importance is not as straightforward as it sounds, the association believes. The merits of rail as the ‘greener’ transport mode have been named and acknowledged by many. This argumentation is not incorrect; however, it can be insufficient in many cases.

ERFA has repeatedly proposed a different and more business-friendly approach. For instance, the sector must focus more on end-users and how products can feasibly move to rail transport. This approach is optimal to attract more customers and achieve the coveted modal shift from road to rail.

The market has its particular needs and unavoidably thinks from the perspective of efficiency and financial profit. As a result, paying more attention to the development of tools and concrete proposals is the best way to make apparent the benefits that rail has. Moreover, improving services and ensuring the adapted and secure transportation of various products could also work to the industry’s advantage. In this way, visibility in the transport market will improve since factuality will replace generalisations, and more opportunities will occur.


The sector experienced a significant decline in cargo or up to 30 per cent during the first wave in the spring of 2020. Since then, it has been recovering, but not to the levels expected. For an industry that operates on small margins, this will lead to a challenging financial situation for operators. Also this year, sufficient measures should be in place, Feighan pointed out.

One of the key points the association has been emphasising, is that support should be fair, transparent and non-discriminatory. This is especially relevant considering the diverse make-up of the European rail freight market. “Since the 31 per cent of European rail freight national markets consists of non-incumbent operators”, it is now more urgent than ever to support diversity and level-playing field competition.

The term ‘non-incumbent operators’ refers to independent operators that are not owned by states. Specifically, they are private companies which operate rolling-stock or tracks. During the first waves of Covid-19, they played a central role in keeping European supply chains running, and estimations show that they will contribute highly to the market’s future growth. A legal framework that will ensure their survival and equal chances is, thus, of priority, is the ERFA stance.

Policy revisions

ERFA is optimistic that the sector will benefit from some key legislative revisions, such as the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy. However, it is concerned that the Eurovignette Directive reform undermines rail freight’s competition, and focuses more on road transportation.” We need to ensure that we have infrastructure that meets the needs of rail freight. Rail freight needs to have clearly defined rights at international level on strategic infrastructure corridors”, Feighan said.

Another revision concerns the State Aid guidelines for Railway Undertakings, which is likely to be revised again over the years. “The industry can expect ERFA to be present and active in revising this legislation.”

Watch the talk

This Friday Conor Feighan will join RailFreight Live with Akos Ersek from the UIRR, to discuss the prospects of the  European Year of Rail. You can watch this show live at 1pm, or watch it afterwards, on our YouTube Channel.

Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is editor of, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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