Great opportunities for the modal shift to future-proof rail transport in Europe

13. 08. 2019

Guest author: Hans-Willem Vroon, railroad specialist and representative of the Dutch rail freight sector, in the RCG-Talk.

Freight transport serves logistics chains in a dynamic and growing world economy and the demand for freight transport is growing structurally. That’s why especially rail freight transport promises many good things.

Then why doesn't everyone switch to rail transport immediately?

Hans-Willem Vroon is a manager and corporate advisor. He graduated with Master of science in transport and business economics. As a railroad specialist and strategist he scores with 25 years of professional experience in business and government. Actually Hans-Willem Vroon is a representative of the Dutch rail freight sector though the lobby organisation RailGood.

Great opportunities for modal shift to future proof rail transport in Europe

by Hans-Willem Vroon


Freight is increasingly transported with multiple modalities. Rail freight transport is complementary to road transport, inland shipping, aviation and pipeline transport. Rail freight transport connects sea ports, industry and trade centers with the European hinterland and China (One Belt One Road).


Rail freight transport is the most environmentally friendly mode as well as safe and space-efficient. Freight trains transport larger freight volumes fluently and efficiently. In addition, rail freight transport relieves the congested road network in Europe. Based on these strengths, rail freight transport positively contributes to both the economic ambitions and to a healthy, safe and pleasant living environment in the Netherlands and Europe.

Then why doesn't everyone switch to rail transport immediately?

Shippers expect competitively priced, reliable and flexible transport by rail with acceptable lead times. The attractiveness of rail freight transport for shippers must be continuously improved to be able to grow structurally and profitably and to realize a significant modal shift from road to rail.

Rail freight transportation must, can and will become more competitive with other transport modes and surrounding countries. Compared to other modalities, rail freight transport still has relatively much room for improvement to deliver more price-competitive, more reliable and more flexible transport services to shippers.

Competition on the railways in the European freight transport market widens choice, helps keep prices down and is the motor that drives enterprises to do better in terms of efficiency and innovation. This is good for the competitive position of Europe and with it for the economy, quality of life and climate. Rail transport is an already existing enabler of decarbonization of the European economy.

Example of innovative Subcoal ® transport by MOBILER

Rail freight transport is not only a solution for transporting goods between major European ports, multimodal inland terminals and industries. Through entrepreneurship, innovation and trans-European strength of internationally operating logistics and transport companies, there are also many good opportunities in the niches and regions that are connected to the trans-European core network.

An interesting example is the proof of ongoing modal shift of Subcoal ® Production FRM (SPF) from port of Delfzijl (Northern Netherlands) to Linz (Austria). SPF produces alternative fuels by using the patented Subcoal ® technology with which various non-recyclable paper-plastic streams are processed into high-quality pellets.

The highly caloric Subcoal ® pellets are used in the steel industry as a coal substitute and in power plants. This reduces the use of fossil fuels. Subcoal ® also offers a better solution for non-recyclable waste in order to avoid dumping or incinerating.

1,000 tons are going to be transported by 12 fix-coupled wagons with 4 MOBILER containers per wagon from RCG. A hydraulic lifting device on the MOBILER vehicle enables the fast and straightforward handling of MOBILER-containers between truck and wagon, without a crane or stacker. Therefore the MOBILER container combines the advantages of the environmentally friendly and safe rail freight transport with the flexible road transport. In this way, an innovative, sustainable product is transported with an innovative transport solution.

Measures to boost rail freight transport

To give rail freight transport a huge boost in the coming decade the following measures of European governments and infra managers need to be fully implemented:

  • Elimination of all market barriers and market distortions in the European railway system. The level playing field with other modalities and logistics chains via other European countries must become equal soon.
  • Timely availability of high-capacity and interoperable railway infrastructure for the rail freight sector on long distance routes, the short lines and last mile.
  • International and efficient rail infrastructure management in the rail freight corridors.
  • Improving the reliability and efficiency at the beginning and the end of the rail freight chain. Easy access to transport and traffic information.
  • Active safeguarding that antitrust rules prevent cartels and dominant companies using their power to drive out competition.

It is time to speed up this implementation of measures, Europe wide. If competition, innovation and entrepreneurship in rail freight transport are strongly supported by decisive government policy and railway infrastructure management, many more opportunities for modal shift from road to rail will be realized in the coming decade.