Modal shift to cleaner transport fails to materialise

02.17.2023

The pandemic has greatly affected rail passenger traffic in Europe, where it has decreased by half of the dockside volume, most container traffic falls on sea transport, and domestic freight transport does not tend to switch to sustainable modes of transport.

Growing transport demand from 2010 up until the pandemic

Inland freight transport demand in Australia, Europe, and transition economies continuously increased over the last decade. In 2021, inland freight transport grew by 54% in Australia, 15% in Europe, and 26% in transition economies compared to 2010. The onset of Covid-19 did not significantly impact inland freight transport in Australia and Europe. Inland freight transport continued growing in 2020. In 2021, it was higher by 3% in Australia and by 2% in Europe compared to 2019. By contrast, transition economies’ freight transport decreased by 4% in 2020 compared to 2019 but recovered in 2021 to be 3% above the pre-pandemic level in 2019.

Containerised freight transport grew significantly during the last decade, especially in transition economies compared to Europe. The pandemic did not disrupt the growing trend of containerised freight in transition economies. In Europe, however, the pandemic caused a drop of 5% between 2019 and 2020. Nevertheless, by 2021, containerised freight volume was 47% higher in Europe and 93% higher in transition economies compared to 2010.

Inland passenger transport was significantly impacted in Europe and in transition economies in 2020 after one decade of constant growth. The Covid-19 pandemic severely disrupted the European passenger transport sector in 2020, reducing passenger travel demand to below 2010 levels. In transition economies, passenger transport fell by 17% in 2020 compared to 2019, although this was still above 2010 levels. Data for 2021 show that inland passenger transport was 9% lower in Europe and 44% higher in transition economies compared to 2010.

Road crash fatalities decrease despite growth in transport

Deaths fromroad crashes fell in Europe, OECD Pacific countries and transition economies between 2010 and 2021. Crash fatalities increased in North America overall, with a decrease in Canada of 21% and USA recording an increase of 30%. The Covid-19 pandemic accentuated the drop in road fatalities due to travel restrictions imposed in many countries. In 2021, fatalities fell by 33% in Europe, 42% in OECD Pacific countries and 28% in transition economies compared with 2010 (Figure 2).

Economic growth and road crash fatalities move in tandem when no specific road safety measures are taken. Panel data regression analysis confirms the positive correlation between road crash fatalities and GDP growth while isolating country-specific fixed effects like policy interventions on road safety. Research by the ITF’s International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD) also confirms this relationship. In its 2015 study, the group concluded that severe economic downturns, like the global financial crisis of 2008-09, are invariably followed by a marked drop in road crash fatalities. Countries must introduce effective road safety policies in order to decouple economic growth and road fatalities.

Freight shift to road jeopardises climate goals

Despite the general stability in the modal share of inland freight transport across ITF member countries, the 2021 data show some noticeable differences from 2010. A few countries increased their use of rail to transport freight, most notably Australia (+8%), Slovenia (+7%) and Italy (+5%), shifting from road transport. Other countries with an increased share of rail freight are Finland, France, Germany and Hungary. Most countries that experienced an inland freight modal shift show an increase in the use of road transport, however. Serbia (+40%), Lithuania (+21%) and Moldova (+13%) are the top three countries with the highest shift towards road transport, reducing their shares of rail and inland waterways use. The remaining countries have also increased the use of trucks on average by 4% (Figure 3).

The increasing use of road transport over the railway in most countries translates into more carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, hindering global climate efforts. ITF’s Transport Climate Action Directory shows that improving vehicle fuel efficiency and adopting new, zero-emission vehicle technologies can be the first steps in reducing emissions from the freight transport sector. Promoting mode shift from road to rail is also an effective policy since the emissions intensity of rail freight is nearly ten times lower than that of trucks (per tonne-kilometre).

Sea transport accounts for the largest share of containerised freight

Rail container transport grew significantly during the last decade in Europe and transition economies, increasing by 59% in Europe and more than doubling in transition economies. Sea container freight experienced smaller but sizeable gains from 2010 to 2021: in Europe, it increased by 42%, while transition economies experienced growth of 89%. Ten countries saw an increase in the share of transport by sea: Azerbaijan (+25%), Slovenia (+14%) and Norway (+12%). The other 11 countries had an increased share of rail, with the most remarkable gains in Poland (+15%), Italy (+11%) and France (+9%) (Figure 4).

Covid-19 sees European rail passenger transport drop 51% Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, rail passenger numbers in most European countries and Türkiye increased significantly. Türkiye (+155%), Slovakia (+77%) and the Czech Republic (+66%) recorded the most significant gains in the region from 2010 to 2019. By contrast, many reporting countries, including the Balkan countries, Latvia, Moldova and Ukraine, have experienced a contraction of rail use since 2010.

It is possible to observe the effects of numerous lockdowns and self-isolating measures on rail transport due to the Covid-19 pandemic by comparing passenger transport between 2019 and 2021. The most affected countries during the pandemic were Moldova (-69%), Ireland (-64%), and Albania (-59%), while the least affected countries were Bulgaria (-21%), Slovenia (-22%), and France (-23%).

In 2021, only Türkiye (+91%), Estonia (+17%) and the Czech Republic (+4%) has rail passenger numbers above 2010 levels. All other reporting countries plummeted below 2010 levels. Countries that experienced relatively significant gains up to 2019, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, returned to 2010 levels during the second year of the pandemic. This was mainly due to the fact that the second Covid-19 wave in early 2021 and the Omicron wave at the end of 2021 forced most governments to implement new lockdowns (Figure 5).

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