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Europe: Experts Debate Road And Rail Transport From Environmental Viewpoint

Europe's highways, east and west, grow more crowded every year. Massive delays because of traffic jams are frequent, and for the commercial world that means time and money wasted. For the environment, it means tons of polluting hydrocarbons pumped pointlessly into the air by standing vehicles. Meanwhile, Europe's massive rail system now carries only some 8 percent of the freight moving around the continent. Are railways a thing of the past for freight transport? Or can they use their environmental advantages to stage a revival? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 21 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Everybody talks about it: the congestion of the motorways and main roads by heavy trucks making long-distance freight journeys. Private car drivers often find themselves sandwiched between towering trucks as they speed along the highway. At such a moment, a nervous driver might typically comment, "All this freight should be back on the railways where it belongs."

The fact is, freight has found a home on the roads for many years now, with only some 8 percent of freight still carried by rail overall in Europe. Despite much talk by environmentalists and governments about shifting cargo back to the more environmentally friendly railways and waterways, the dominance of road transport is difficult to challenge.

According to Geoff Dosseter, the British-based head of external relations at the Freight Transport Association, the reasons for the success of road transport are partly historical. He tells RFE/RL that loads were different when rail was the main means of transport:

"One hundred year ago, we were talking about the movement of vast quantities of heavyweight goods over long distances -- coal, steel, oil, and the like. But these days, of course, we are talking about a much more fragmented manufacturing process, and I think the type of thing that is required now -- such as component supply -- does lend itself to the door-to-door service which is provided by the road product."

Dosseter believes that because of their flexibility and efficiency, trucks will continue to dominate freight haulage for the foreseeable future.

The rail industry sees the situation differently. Officials say it's true that road haulers have a door-to-door flexibility that rail can never match. But they question whether road transport is paying its dues. Guy Hoedds, the chief spokesman for the Community of European Railways, tells RFE/RL from Brussels:

"We have commissioned a study by an independent consulting team of universities, and they have shown that what we call the 'external costs' of road transport are extremely high. What we mean by external costs is the costs of accidents, the cost of pollution, the costs of climate change, that are not taken into account by the user when he chooses his mode of transport. And these studies have shown that a shift to rail would produce an extremely important saving for society in terms of those [external] costs."

Hoedds goes on to say that his association has calculated that the total costs for accidents, pollution, congestion, and so forth, as related to road transport, is almost $640 billion a year.

The Community of European Railways (CER), which Hoedds represents, is an association of 35 major railways, including those in the European Union member states, plus Switzerland, Norway, and eight Central and Eastern candidates looking for EU membership, namely Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania.

Hoedds contends that railways are disadvantaged because of the infrastructure costs they face, compared to road transport. His association wants what it calls a "harmonized" charging framework that treats railways and other transport modes on a similar basis. He characterizes the present situation as unfair, noting that truckers only have to pay relatively minor charges:

"They pay some taxes to the governments, of course, or in a number of cases they pay [road] tolls, or they pay the so-called euro-vignette [sticker]. But we feel the amounts covered by those systems of taxation, tolls, et cetera, are way below the actual direct costs [of road transport], let alone the external costs."

Dosseter of the Freight Transport Association disputes that truck drivers are not paying their way. He says:

"I dispute that. The fact is that road freight is delivering the goods that all of us require on a daily basis -- our food, our drink, our clothes, our daily consumer supplies are generally speaking provided for by road. The cost of providing that road product is reflected in the price of the goods. If society chooses to pay more for those goods, it will have to pay more for the transport."

Dosseter says the road transport industry has never shied away from the necessity to pay the appropriate amount of money for the use of infrastructure. But he says that the industry would not regard as "economically sensible" any "artificial" extra tax -- a reference to the theory of external costs as advanced by the railmen. In turn, he points out the progress in reducing motor vehicle pollution:

"The road transport industry has made enormous strides in the last 10 or 20 years in improving the quality of the operation of its vehicles. Emissions have been reduced by over 80 percent in the past 10 years, and there are signs that they will be reduced even further in the future. The truck of 2001 is a vastly different vehicle than that of 1991. It's quieter, it's cleaner, it's more efficient. In overall terms, it's more environmentally friendly."

The improvement in the trucks is timely, given the increasing preoccupation of EU governments with sustainable development. For instance, Germany is to introduce, for the first time, road tolls for trucks starting in 2003. The fee per kilometer will vary according to the number of axles on a truck and its exhaust emissions.

The move is part of German government plans to shift the financial burden for transport infrastructure from taxpayers to road users -- a move sure to please the rail lobby.

German Transport Minister Kurt Bodewig says the tolls should cover the costs of an expected 64 percent increase in the numbers of heavy trucks on Germany's motorways by 2005 -- many of them from Eastern Europe.

So, can the railways recover their lost predominance in cargo transport? Indications are that if it ever happens, it won't be soon. Remember that the next time you are stalled in a column of trucks on the highway.