Monster trucks and lots of rail: The wish list for the EU’s Greening Transport Package

08.31.2023

The EU wants to slash emissions from transport by 90 percent by 2050 by getting cargo off of CO2-emitting trucks and on to much cleaner railways and barges.

The European Commission will flesh out its vision for cleaner cargo transport on Tuesday in a policy grab bag that includes easing rules for larger trucks on the bloc’s roads as well as revamping rail regulations.

The Greening Transport Package — or the Greening Freight Package; the Commission has gone back and forth on the name — will include measures to rethink the allocation of rail track capacity and a methodology for counting the emissions of a transport job, and revisit the maximum weights and dimensions of heavy-duty vehicles. It’s also supposed to revamp rules that apply to combined transport — when a single load is carried by several different types of transport — although the proposal is expected at a later date.

The freight industry is basking in the unusual level of attention from Brussels.

The package «is finally not doing something to freight transport ... but really doing something for freight transport. It’s a little word, but it’s a big difference,» said Akos Ersek, chief policy adviser at UIRR, an industry group representing combined rail-road transport.

Here are some of the issues the industry would like the package to address:

1. Moving cargo from road to rail

The Commission has set targets to move more cargo via rail and waterways, including a goal to double rail freight traffic by 2050. But that means the EU rulebook for combining different modes «needs a substantial revamp,» its 2020 Mobility Strategy stressed.

But the executive withdrew a 2017 proposal to revisit the bloc’s combined transport rules, and pushed back its own update. At this point, the existing framework «is just not functional,» said Ersek.

An update, according to Ersek, requires a clear definition, better enforcement and bolstered support — including a push for improved terminal infrastructure — for combined transport. He argued that should include more transparency, as support programs aren’t reaching the entire sector.

The CountEmissions EU methodology for measuring the carbon footprint of a transport job — something customers and companies increasingly demand — is expected to play a role in the definition of combined transport.

2. Border-crossing trains

Rail systems are managed on a national basis, but freight trains tend to cross borders.

As a result, rail freight companies «are operating an international business in a patchwork of national networks,» said Conor Feighan, secretary-general of rail freight operator group ERFA.

Rail freight operators complain that makes it difficult to book a «rail path» across the Continent, and to hold on to it if there are deviations from the schedule, for instance because of work on the tracks.

Fixing the issue means cross-border rail paths should be planned first, and national timetables built around that; a company should be able to book an international path for a freight train through the infrastructure manager of one EU country; and there should be a «buffer» in the system that allows cargo companies to plan additional routes with a few months’ notice, Feighan argued.

3. Crowded tracks

The bloc’s rail tracks are in demand, but there isn’t any «real guidance or consideration» about the «wisest way of using» that infrastructure, Ersek said.

Five times more passenger trains than freight trains use the rails, and sometimes freight trains can’t get the needed path from an infrastructure manager. If freight transport were offered more capacity, «we would have more rail freight already today, and this is more or less guaranteed,» he said.

4. Truck size trouble

The EU has set maximum weight and dimension thresholds for heavy-duty vehicles, but countries can deviate from the rules.

The result is a highly fragmented rulebook, with differently sized trucks allowed in different countries — the Nordics, for instance, operate far larger trucks — but those trucks are often not allowed to cross borders.

«Trucking, in most cases, is per definition a European cross-border industry, and there should be as much harmonization as possible,» said Thomas Fabian, ACEA’s commercial vehicle director.

Daniel Mes, a member of Commission Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans’ cabinet, has hinted that the Commission wants to permit larger trucks to cross frontiers if the countries on both sides of that border allow them on their territory.

Even so, road transport industry group IRU worries that leeway could be limited to zero-emission vehicles after 2035. That would be «concerning,» IRU’s Advocacy Director Raluca Marian said in a statement, adding that it’s «paramount to maintain technology neutrality and avoid deadlines curtailing the use of certain technologies.»

The Commission’s Mes has said the revision «will also prepare for the shift to zero-emission trucks, with the weights and dimensions suitable to them.» It’s crucial to remove the disadvantages — or «the payload penalty» — of zero-emission vehicles, Fabian said, since battery-powered and hydrogen-fueled trucks are heavier than their diesel counterparts.

But rail industry groups warn that allowing massive long-haul trucks risks sending freight traffic from rail to road. It wouldn’t make sense to permit larger, heavier trucks, which can’t be used in combined transport, Feighan argued, warning that would be «totally disjointed approach» for the package.

5. A tight deadline

The measures have been delayed several times and industry groups worry that the looming EU election could derail them again.

A new Commission could rethink its approach to the rules. But the Parliament isn’t likely to start its work on the plans until September, and «once we get to early 2024, MEPs’ main focus becomes the [European] elections,» Feighan said.

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