Skip to main content
European Commission logo

The Freight-Train of the Future

Switzerland Flag
Complete with results
Project Acronym
B5 (NRP 41)
STRIA Roadmaps
Transport mode
Rail icon
Transport policies
Environmental/Emissions aspects
Transport sectors
Freight transport


Background & Policy context

The NRP 41 was launched by the Federal Council at the end of 1995 to improve the scientific basis on which Switzerland's traffic problems might be solved, taking into account the growing interconnection with Europe, ecological limits, and economic and social needs.


The NRP 41 aimed to become a think-tank for sustainable transport policy.

Each one of the 54 projects belongs to one of the following six modules:

  • A Mobility: Socio-institutional Aspects 
  • B Mobility: Socio-economical Aspects 
  • C Environment: Tools and Models for Impact Assessments
  • D Political and Economic Strategies and Prerequisites 
  • E Traffic Management: Potentials and Impacts 
  • F Technologies: Potentials and Impacts 
  • M Materials 
  • S Synthesis Projects

Railways are not just losing market share due to the intensifying international competition.

The road freight sector is also at the same time constantly reducing its specific pollution (particularly air pollutant emissions and noise) and thus has been able to reduce its environmental disadvantage compared to railways. This is undermining the transport policy justification for giving preferential treatment to railways on environmental grounds.

In order to counteract this trend effectively, the freight train of the future must therefore increase both its economic and also its environmental productivity by certain factors.

With the introduction of railway reforms, the political framework conditions are created which break down certain barriers. The increase in productivity in the road freight sector should continue in the future: economically, the increased weight limits (in Switzerland, the removal of the 28 tonne limits), the freedom of cabotage as well as improved navigation systems have led to an increase in productivity, while in the environmental area further improvements can be expected, particularly in air pollutant emissions.

The current ideas on pollution limits (EURO IV) would, for instance, mean a further reduction in nitrous oxides of around 75% as compared with the current average.

At the same time, the circumstances of demand and therefore the requirements of customers have undergone a structural change: the increasing value of freight and the decreasing specific weight, changed stockholding strategies as well as the increased flexibility of production methods today require transport tailored to a high degree to meet the needs of the customer. Here, railways are at a disadvantage compared to road freight for the moment, due to the slow nature of large systems.

This project deals first and foremost with the productivity potential of railways on the supply side.

The central question is how and with what products and under what framework conditions railways are in a position to be able to double economic and environmental productivity so as to transport double the amount of freight and make double the amount of profit with the same costs and same amount of environmental damage. All in all, we describe this improvement as 'Factor 4' following v. Weizsäcker (1995). At the same time a strategic bridge is built between supply and demand.


An international expert workshop which was held in mid October 1997 in Olten formed a key element of this project.


Parent Programmes
Institution Type
Public institution
Institution Name
Swiss National Science Foundation SNF
Type of funding
Public (national/regional/local)


Preliminary study:

It is often claimed that in order to survive in the freight sector, the railway will have to double its productivity and halve its burden on the environment. In other words it must quadruple its efficiency. Is such a 'Factor-4-Train' technically feasible?


A preliminary study has analysed innovations that can reasonably be foreseen. Automated train coupling devices and optimised shunting systems, more economical arrangements of trains, an electronic train guidance system based on international standards, and simplified clearance at customs' borders should be called for as the most important technical and organisational improvements.


According to international studies and discussions with experts, the authors estimate that this could achieve cost reductions of 50 per cent and organisational improvements could possibly double the load factors.


Environmental problems could be drastically reduced by introducing a new type of brake, and by using energy sources more rationally.

However, this technological potential can only be realised by means of a step-by-step implementation as part of an overall optimised system.

Furthermore, increased exposure of the railway to competition could accelerate such innovations. The findings will be analysed in greater depth in a main study.


Main study:

The preliminary study has shown that many innovations are feasible which could enable at best a 'factor-four' rail freight system (half the environmental impact and twice the economic productivity).

Now, an in-depth survey of what is really feasible in the market, as well as a case study on single-wagonload traffic, have enabled better analyses of possible innovative strategies. In this respect, investments in operational and 'software' components (e.g. information and communication) are more important than hardware (e.g. rolling stock and infrastructure).


Radical modernisation as well as an opposite strategy, wit

Policy implications

The following questions for further consolidation crystallised out from the discussions at the expert workshop:

  • Consolidation of the innovation paths and analysis of the cost-benefit ratio: central to this is the consolidation of paths 2 (innovative train coupling) and 3 (innovative train management systems). It is still not clear how interchangeable the various possible systems and technologies are with regard to system-compatible development (e.g. implementation of automatic freight trains, compatibility of different road freight systems with each other and with wagon loading transport; reference to demand).

  • Reference of the innovation paths to demand: how can the supply-oriented innovation paths formulated be matched to the future needs of demand? What are the cost-benefit paths for optimum allocation of investment? What concrete innovation paths or investment priorities can be derived for the future?

  • Implementation and role sharing between private business and government.


Assuming the analysed success factors for the implementation of innovations and the future needs of demand, what is the role or main focus for government?

Central to this is the interface or investment priorities between infrastructure (financing by government) and rolling stock (financing by the private sector), particularly as regards the development of internationally compatible and centrally controlled systems.


Lead Organisation
EU Contribution
Partner Organisations
EU Contribution


Contribute! Submit your project

Do you wish to submit a project or a programme? Head over to the Contribute page, login and follow the process!