In 1970, the railways carried 33% of national freight tonne-km, averaged across the EU-15. By 1998, this share had fallen to 14%, and total volume carried had fallen by 15%. Over the same period, road traffic congestion has increased, as have concerns over vehicle emissions. A switch back to the railways is widely perceived as being important for the environment and to avoid economic growth being constrained by traffic problems. This is being addressed in a number of ways, such as the liberalisation of the rail sector to encourage efficiency through competition, and the development of a European Rail Traffic Management System to support interoperability. However, the question also arises whether the rail network could be better organised, for instance by giving priority to freight on certain routes.
The aims of EUFRANET were to identify and evaluate conditions for the development of a trans-European rail network, mainly dedicated to freight transportation and to establish a strategy for its implementation.
An initial market survey showed that the majority of shippers interviewed regard the quality of international rail transport as inadequate, but are less critical about domestic rail transport. Main criticisms of international freight included poor flexibility and reliability, a lack of co-ordination between operators, inadequate information, high costs, unreliable pricing policies, and a failure to co-operate in exploiting logistical systems.
EUFRANET modelled the development of demand for freight transport in 2020. Under a 'current trends' scenario, rail would continue to lose market share to the road sector, falling from 14 to 9%. By combining the demand model with a supply model of the railway network, the project then evaluated the potential effects of new strategies for rail infrastructure and operations for rail freight services. A new assignment of routes to different services was devised, based on three sub-networks:
- a core network strongly dedicated to freight, covering the industrial regions of central Europe;
- an intermediate network mainly dedicated to freight but also carrying local passenger trains;
- a mixed network on which passenger trains would normally have priority.
The modelling results indicated that traffic on the dedicated network could increase significantly, accounting for 85% of total freight traffic on just 20% of the rail network. Journey times on this network could be cut by 20 to 30%. The decline in modal share of rail could be reversed, taking the share back up to 16%. Gains in national markets would be of the same order of magnitude as gains in international transport, though varying between Member States.
The implementation of a dedicated freight network and operating system would require a number of actions:
- infrastructure investment to remove bottlenecks (for instance crossing the Pyrenees and the Alps
- the agreement and implementation of standards and systems to overcome a lack of interoperability across the network;
- the introduction of a slot scheduling and assignment method for international services;
- some degree of harmonisation of the subsystems used by the train operators (pricing, information, reservation, tracking and tracing etc).