Doubling freight transport by rail as a specific solution for our climate

20 February 2019

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European and Belgian rail freight companies have committed to doubling rail volumes for radically reducing the impact of freight transport on the climate. Armed with a clear action plan, they are offering an ambitious but specific campaign focused on shifting transport from road to rail. “We represent a major opportunity for radically reducing the transport sector's CO2 footprint”, says Geert Pauwels, CEO of the Belgian company Lineas.

Noah’s Train: a fun campaign... with a serious aim

A colourful scene is coming to Schaerbeek station today. Noah's Train, a freight train painted with colourful animals, inspired by the world's first ever climate activist, is arriving in Belgium with a clear message: this time, it's the railway that will save the day.

Departing from the UN climate conference in Katowice in December, Noah's Train will pass through European capital cities on its journey where local artists will bring a creative aspect to the call for more climate-friendly freight transport. The aim of the longest travelling work of art in the world is to promote a shift from road transport to rail, a mode of transport with a much lower carbon footprint.

A fast-growing transport sector with a large carbon footprint

The campaign is fun, but the goal is deadly serious. Today, with 275 million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, 11 million of which are in Belgium, freight transport is responsible for almost 10% of the total CO2 emissions. The main reason for this is that 75% of all freight transport goes by road. Road transport has a significantly higher footprint than other modes of transport, in terms of its impact on air pollution and mobility problems as well.

Furthermore, freight transport in Europe is expected to increase by at least 30% by the year 2030. Geert Pauwels, CEO of Lineas, explains: “Without drastic measures, CO2 emissions will increase by a quarter which will make our climate goal of -49% impossible. Air pollution will increase proportionally and soon we will all be stuck in traffic jams permanently. This way, we won't achieve anything. We need to switch to rail as a matter of urgency.”

Shifting transport to rail: a climate-focused intervention with a big impact

For this reason, the European rail freight operators are joining forces in the Rail Freight Forward coalition. The European rail freight operators have put a firm action plan on the table for doubling freight volumes transported by rail by 2030. Rail uses around 6 times less energy than road transport and emits 9 times less CO2. Moreover, it causes 8 times less air pollution, is much safer and offers a solution to the growing problem of traffic congestion.

Doubling rail transport specifically means an increase in the rail share from 18% to 30% in Europe and from 10% to 16% in Belgium. “This prevents us from adding a million extra lorries to our roads by 2030, 90,000 of which would be in Belgium,” Pauwels continues. “And with that, additional annual emissions of 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 and 2,000 tonnes of particulate matter in Belgium.”

Specific action plan for doubling rail volumes

The ‘30 by 2030’ action plan, referring to the ambition to increase the rail share in Europe to 30% by 2030 explains the conditions necessary to make this specific climate-friendly intervention possible. The action plan was also detailed in Belgium by the new Belgian Forum of Rail Freight Operators.

An important preliminary step is for rail freight operators to continue to focus on innovative solutions that can be competitive with road transport in terms of frequency, reliability, flexibility, price and service. The focus should be on user-friendliness for the customer, the further adoption of new technologies and the further modernisation of the sector.

Three areas of action for the government

In addition, the government is being asked to develop a climate-focused transport policy that makes the shift to rail possible. Specifically, rail freight operators are asking the government to take action at three levels.

The first level concerns infrastructure managers. “Infrabel must make driving a train through Belgium as easy as driving a lorry,” says Pauwels. The infrastructure manager, Infrabel in Belgium, must be given the task, the mandate and the resources to roll out and manage a high-quality rail network according to customers’ needs and mobility.

Secondly, the government must make it easier and cheaper for companies to opt for rail transport. This can be done by partially reimbursing the costs of transferring lorries to trains as well as the costs for the first and last mile. “Many companies and hauliers want to put more goods on the railways instead of getting stuck in traffic jams with their lorries. If the government compensates some of these handling costs, they will actually do so.” 

Thirdly, the Belgian government should take the example of neighbouring countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. These countries have deliberately radically reduced the costs of train paths, the costs that operators pay for using the railways. “Railway companies pay for every kilometre they travel on the track,” says Pauwels. “In Germany, they recently halved these costs and this has a direct impact on the competitiveness of the railways.”

Time for a bold policy

The rail freight operators are ready, but are asking those responsible for policy to move on to taking specific action. “We need to convince all Belgians to take the train and cycle more for our planet, but let's also offer companies a more climate-friendly transport model. It can be done. And it can be done relatively quickly, cheaply and to everyone's benefit,” is Geert Pauwels’ conclusion.

For more information about Rail Freight Forward, Vision 2030 of the coalition or #NoahsTrain, visit www.railfreightforward.eu or contact press@railfreightforward.eu.

Press images, videos and the memorandum of the Belgian forum of rail freight operators can be downloaded at www.railfreightforward.eu/belgium

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