Original publication: November 2018
Authors: TRT Trasporti e Territorio: Enrico Pastori, Marco Brambilla, Silvia Maffii, Raffaele Vergnani, Ettore Gualandi, Eglantina Dani
TEPR Transport & Environment Policy Research: Ian Skinner
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Modal shift in European transport: a way forward

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The purpose of the study was to undertake an up-to-date and thorough analysis of the progress, potential and further challenges for the EU in transferring part of road transport to more sustainable modes, as set out in the 2011 White Paper on transport. This strategy set an ambitious goal of reducing by 60% greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 2050 compared to the level of these emissions in 1990. To achieve this, overall objectives regarding modal shift have been set, such as a 30% shift of EU road freight over 300 km to more sustainable modes of transport (i.e. rail and waterborne transport) by 2030 (and more than 50% by 2050). Additionally, the 2011 White Paper on transport proposes that by 2050, the majority of medium‐distance passenger transport should be by rail, and that by the same year a European high speed rail network should have been completed. This study particularly focused on the timeframe 2011-2018, in order to better evaluate whether the policies and measures that have been implemented and which are currently in force are delivering the expected outcomes.


The study offers an in-depth analysis of the most pressing issues and trends relating to passenger and freight transport, which are likely to impact and influence modal shift. Starting from the most recent data and statistics available from international and European sources, the study provides a clear overview and robust evidence about the current situation and trends regarding modal shift. The study pays particular attention to several factors (i.e. access charges, interoperability, EU financing) that may influence the cost of different transport modes and therefore modal choice. The study is intended to support the Members of the Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN) of the European Parliament on what could be done, in particular at the EU policy level, to further support the process and provide useful insights and recommendations for possible further initiatives.


The number of factors influencing modal shift and the choice of transport modes is widespread. Key determinants for passenger transport are linked to spatial patterns (e.g. urban density and the proximity to infrastructure and services and journey characteristics) and socio-demographic characteristics (e.g. car ownership, household size, occupation and wage levels). Key determinants for freight transport are related to the shipment characteristics and may depend on cost, time and quality of different transport services.

Despite an increase in freight volumes, the modal share of road, rail and inland waterway freight transport remained substantially unchanged between 1996 and 2016, both for passenger and freight transport, with road transport showing a slight increase. Looking at future projections, road transport is expected to keep its predominant position both for the passenger and freight sectors. However, its modal share is expected to decrease by a few percentage points, mainly to the benefit of rail transport.

The analysis of the progress in the development of the network and in the application of the EU and national regulation has shown that:

  • the density of rail and inland waterway (IWW) networks differs across the EU, as does the provision of ports and intermodal terminals. Therefore, multimodal connectivity within Member States and their regions is diverse, with the highest connectivity seen in the Benelux area and western Germany. The designation of the TEN-T network – both core and comprehensive – and the rail freight corridors (RFCs) intends to create an integrated system of infrastructure aimed at ensuring an efficient level of service for freight and passenger transport. The levels of completion of the core network are low for road and conventional rail, and even lower for the high speed rail network. The implementation of the IWW network is at a more advanced stage.
  • Regarding high speed rail, the most extensive networks are in Spain and France, followed by Germany and Italy. Other countries such as the Czech Republic, the three Baltic States, Poland, Portugal and Sweden have planned to implement new high speed railway lines, but the extent of the network is still far from the objectives set in the 2011 White Paper on transport, while there are also issues in relation to the interoperability of the different national high speed rail networks.
  • Cross-border interoperability in the rail sector is still far from being fully achieved, as many technical and administrative barriers are still present on the ground (e.g. in relation to gauges, signalling, electrification and speed control, power systems adopted, etc.). Road and IWW are more interoperable, largely as they do not face the same levels of complexity in making infrastructure interoperable, as railways do.
  • Different access charging schemes are applied across the EU road network, both for light private vehicles and HGVs. These include distance-based access charges, time-based charges and tolls paid for the use of specific sections of the network. Currently, there is no common approach across the EU, although a transition to either distance-based or time-based systems can be observed over the last years. In the rail sector, access charges are differentiated by train type, the location of the line or node in the network and the time of the service provided. Regarding other transport modes it is worth noting the increased consideration being given to the environmental impact of ships in determining the level at which port fees are set. Low access charges are generally applied to IWW, which only cover a low proportion of the total expenditure on the infrastructure.
  • The application of multimodal payment and ticketing systems is becoming more and more popular, enabling access to more updated and reliable information on public transport services, especially in urban areas. Several examples and good practices have been implemented, while many different technologies are currently being used.
  • The importance and the need to establish a Single Window (single access point) and one-stop-shop for administrative procedures in all transport modes across the EU has been recognised by several European bodies and policies. Currently, the implementation of Single Windows at the EU level is mainly concerned with maritime transport. The development of a prototype Single Window demonstrated the potential benefits relating to the reduction of administrative procedures through simplified and harmonised electronic reporting.
  • Urban areas have been identified since 2013 as an important part of the TEN-T network. Transport demand is concentrated in cities, where an increasing proportion of the population lives and where a lot of relevant activities take place, so they are the prime location for intermodal interchanges. More integration across a range of elements is needed, including physically at specific locations, timetables, information and ticketing. The details of the type and extent of integration that is needed depends on local characteristics. Integration between modes can be improved through the use of technology, such as mobile phone applications for travel planning and payment.
  • Multimodal transport projects are funded through a different range of European funds, in order to achieve the objectives set by the 2011 White Paper on transport. The analysis of data conducted in the framework of this research indicates that a small share of fund is allocated to multimodal projects and an unbalanced distribution of multimodal TEN-T projects between EU Member States. The allocation of CEF funds is even more unbalanced, since about 90% of these have been dedicated to multimodal projects within the EU-15 Member States.
Main Conclusions

Due to several reasons, a significant shift to less carbon intensive transport modes is still far from being fully achieved. The analysis carried out for the purpose of this study clearly highlighted that road freight is the dominant transport mode. Moreover, current projections seem to confirm that no particular shift between modes occurred in the period 2010-2016 and long-term prognoses for 2050 suggest that road transport will maintain its dominant position for both passenger and freight transport. Whilst the modal share for road freight transport is expected to remain stable in the long perspective, this share for road passenger transport is expected to decrease from 74% in 2015 to 69% in 2050, expressed in passenger-kilometre (p-km).

Road transport is subject to high levels of taxation, but has a relatively inelastic demand. The possibility that the policies set by the 2011 White Paper on transport could significantly influence modal shift are therefore limited, and likely to be effective only if targeted to specific demand segments (e.g. through urban pricing, increased levels of charges for the use of infrastructure in environmentally sensitive areas, etc).

The potential for modal shift is higher where transport demand is concentrated; for passengers this is in urban areas, while for freight this is where multimodal connectivity is at its highest. Urban areas – particularly the largest agglomerations – are where modal shift is more achievable. There are many measures that potentially contribute to modal shift in urban areas, including the provision of infrastructure for alternative modes, the implementation of shared mobility and ITS, vehicle access restrictions and the integration of ticketing, payment and information for public transport. Concerns about congestion and pollution in cities also mean that local residents are more open to using more sustainable transport modes.

Rail could deliver further modal shift in specific transport demand segments, but at the cost of large investments. The development of high speed railway (HSR) alone does not seem to be sufficient to shift significantly passengers from road to rail. Due to the high costs related to HSR, investments should focus only where HSR has most potential, and also on upgrading selected sections of conventional lines – where the potential for modal split is higher – and the improvement of the reliability of HSR and conventional services. With respect to multimodal freight transport, the ongoing process of amending the Combined Transport Directive is expected to facilitate further the development of multimodal transport. The investment in multimodal projects (e.g. in the rail-road terminals (RRT) or in inland waterway terminals) has been low compared to other infrastructure, so far, which needs to be addressed.

Technology is important in helping to deliver modal shift for both passenger and freight transport. However: (i) for passengers, it could lead to a modal shift between modes that are alternatives to road; and (ii) for freight, road transport has a higher potential to change vis-à-vis rail.

Three cross-sectional barriers have been identified relating to the lack of a level playing field between the modes. First, it is important to ensure that all modes of transport pay their full external costs. Second, the way in which different modes are taxed differs between modes and across Member States. Third, the favourable tax treatment of company cars and the fuel that they use.

Specific barriers for rail freight are: (i) an ongoing lack of cross-border interoperability; (ii) the complexity of transport chains, which is a particular challenge for multimodal chains; (iii) slow implementation of the measures needed to deliver a single European rail transport network; (v) slower technological innovation in the rail freight sector; and vi) a lack of knowledge and sufficient exchange of information.

Specific barriers for IWW are: (i) high costs resulting from a lack of intermodal infrastructure; (ii) the decreased navigability of rivers resulting from climate change impacts; (iii) missing links; iv) lack of willingness to share customer data as a result of concerns around confidentiality; and (v) the lack of

availability and transparency of freight flow information in combination with limited Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) facilities.

Specific barriers for medium-distance passenger transport are: (i) an insufficient development of the high speed rail network; and (ii) challenges posed by modes constituting an alternative for the road transport, particularly in terms of convenience and price, and a lack of competition in high speed rail services.

Specific barriers in urban areas are: (i) transport and land use planning that has facilitated the use of private motorised vehicles above other modes; and (ii) lack of integration within public transport.


The main recommendations that can be proposed are as follows:

  1. Set objectives that are clearly expressed and measurable over time. The modal shift targets set out in the 2011 White Paper on transport are quite general and, as demonstrated within the study, can be interpreted in different ways and thus lead to different interpretation of whether or not a target has been achieved. For example, different modal shares will be obtained by calculating modal split in terms of passengers or tonnes moved compared to measurements made on the basis of the distance travelled by passengers in terms of p-km or tonne-kilometre (t-km). Similarly, different modal shares would be estimated if the focus was on different journey types, e.g. longer-distances compared to intra-city travel.
  2. Establish targets differentiated by transport segment. Looking at the evolution of demand, it is clear that some demand segments can change quickly and thus deliver the desired results sooner. The case of intermodal transport is a good example, as its increase has driven the growth of IWW and rail freight demand over the last decade. In a context in which logistics is changing and other EU and national policies (e.g. on power generation) influence demand patterns, it is important to differentiate targets by segment. To this end, the data collected should be made available at a more disaggregated level so that progress can be better monitored.
  3. Adopt clear and definite measures to level the playing field. In order to avoid distortions in the market and to prevent the introduction of regulations that may be based on incorrect background assumptions, it is paramount that the findings of the wide range of literature and studies that have been undertaken with specific reference to the EU market are taken into account in a coherent manner. For example, stakeholders and experts often claim that the differential treatment of the different modes, and the different charges and taxes that they face, are not fairly defined and applied according to the “polluter pays” principle.
  4. Redefine the priorities of the interventions on the network. Over the last 10 years, the majority of EU funding of infrastructure has been invested in rail infrastructure (specifically on cross-border routes and in the context of Cohesion Policy). While the completion of the Core Network Corridors (CNCs) is still considered to be a strategically important goal that needs to be pursued, the timing and the way it is achieved can be revised by prioritising the interventions that are more cost effective. This could lead to a focus away from projects targeting the high speed rail network (focusing only on those with a potential for strong demand) and instead putting more resources into ensuring interoperability between national networks.
  5. Strengthening support to investment in multimodal terminals. Multimodal connectivity is not even across the EU; while it is acknowledged that the Core Network Corridors (CNCs) and the Rail Freight Corridors (RFCs) will represent the main axes for the development of intermodality[1] across the EU, it is important that the whole EU territory is given the same opportunity to be connected by rail, following the principle of cohesion and accessibility policy. The distance that needs to be covered, and the associated costs, of the road haulage that occurs before and after transport on another mode are amongst the main barriers to multimodal transport: the improvement of accessibility should help to deliver the potential of this type of transport. This, however, does not mean that the planning of terminals and investment must follow an approach that aims to deliver the same level of multimodal connectivity everywhere: investment should be based on clear indicators of the demand levels and of the socio-economic conditions of the likely catchment area of the terminal.
  6. Support a consistent development of information sharing in freight transport. Electronic information in transport is key for different reasons: informing about the services available, about the terminals and logistics platforms in terms of their accessibility, availability, transhipment facilities, services offered, performance etc. The European Commission has already funded a web-based portal prototype containing this information; this could be further developed and maintained in order to provide comprehensive and updated information.
  7. Support the information and the integration between the modes for passenger transport. Multimodality is also essential for shifting passenger transport from private vehicle use to the use of more sustainable modes of transport. In this respect, increased interest in the concept of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is pushing the development of platforms that can deliver a good integration of systems for information, ticketing and payment.
  8. Promote further the adoption of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPs) and related actions in urban nodes. This should be accompanied by the monitoring of the effectiveness of the measures implemented, through the adoption of common indicators measuring the performance of the plans. This is an area where the European Commission is already investing a lot of time and resources, given the growing importance of urban areas as centres of population and of economic activities. While the responsibility for planning and funding cannot be made to be dependent on EU intervention, it is important that the cities adopting such plans have common approaches and indicators to measure their progress towards common policy objectives.
  9. Support the development of new technologies for both freight and passenger transport. Multimodality and the future generations of mobility systems for passengers and freight require promotion and funding, including:
    • the research and innovation in areas that would help to achieve multimodality, but which are not specifically related to a particular mode of transport, such as digitalisation, automation, artificial intelligence, energy management, etc.;
    • the development and implementation of any new technologies within a specific mode of transport, while ensuring that this does not adversely affect integration, connectivity and interoperability.

[1]        Please see footnote 7 in section 2.1.1 for the definition of intermodality.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/629-182

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