Making the multimodal dream come true

Josef Doppelbauer

The transport of tomorrow will need to be provided by a fully integrated multimodal system which combines efficiency while minimising its impact on the environment, says Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director, European Union Agency for Railways.

Mobility and transport are vital in helping us to meet fundamental personal and societal needs such as education, work, and leisure, to provide us with food, and to enable our interaction with other people.

But mobility and transport come at a price, seriously impacting the environment and the climate. The COVID pandemic has reminded us that certain types of transport can be avoided, but others (such as the supplying of food and the disposal of waste) cannot.

Experts agree that the mobility of tomorrow will be provided by a fully integrated multimodal transport system, which gets people and goods from A to B as quickly as possible, while minimally impacting the environment, from a greenhousegas emission and an energy efficiency point of view. No single transport mode is perfect – we need the optimum mix of air, road and rail, to provide a service that is convenient, affordable, safe and environmentally friendly.

Thanks to digital connectivity, customers will be able to book their journey in a few clicks, and will be offered a wealth of information before, during and after their journey to offer them the best travel options and services. The dream is an efficient and fully connected transport network, which runs our decarbonised economy, and offers affordable and safe travel and transportation options to Europe’s citizens.

Infrastructure plays a key role in transport and mobility – infrastructure aspects need of course to be scaled for demand – and for resilience, not least against extreme weather events. When we speak of infrastructure, we usually refer to hard, physical infrastructure such as railway lines, tunnels and bridges. But for transport, soft infrastructure is equally important and digitalisation offers many opportunities to improve the service and reduce costs. For example, 5G mobile communications can contribute to a reduction of fixed cost in infrastructure. Multimodal transport chains fundamentally rely on communication networks and data sharing. These integrated transport chains will then also provide the necessary redundancy for resilience.

If we wish to reach the climate goals of the European Green Deal, we must change our thinking on many different levels to make our dream reality. Starting with pure logistics, we must increase the number of intermodal nodes both for passenger and freight – a journey rarely begins and ends with the same transport mode, so we will have to work on our infrastructure. And doing that requires a new mindset on behalf of the political decision-makers – from national to European, from single-modal to multimodal thinking. Planning, operation, regulation and investment in transport modes are today mostly undertaken in isolation. It appears to be pointless to plan huge infrastructure projects without considering the needs of neighbouring countries and regions; and similarly, there is no point in trying to solve the capacity problems in one transport mode without considering the impact upstream or downstream. Hence, we can formulate our vision of a sustainable, safe European transport system without frontiers.

"If we wish to reach the climate goals of the European Green Deal, we must change our thinking on many different levels to make our dream reality"

Holistic investment decisions need a fair consideration of the environmental impact, meaning greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption per unit of transport (passenger km or tonne km), as well as the respective variable and fixed costs (see Fig. 1). Rail has advantages: the ability to handle high numbers of passengers and high freight volumes (one freight train might replace 50 trucks), and efficiency over longer distances. Complementarity can be exploited between competing transport modes such as air and rail – this would mean connecting major airports to the long-distance rail network and offering integrated booking options.

The mobility of tomorrow

Figure 1 - The mobility of tomorrow

The implications of these considerations are that there shall be no technical and operational boundaries, full freedom of movement and standardisation (to profit from economies of scale); safety will also benefit from learning through information sharing.

Thus, we arrive at the problem of defining technical standards for the interaction between modes of transport. The European Union Agency for Railways in its 2022 proposal for a revised legislative package for the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSI) has added a multimodal dimension, accounting for the different spheres of interaction between different modes. There will be standards for the exchange of information, others are purely about setting dimensions and other technical parameters that facilitate the handover of passengers and freight from one transport mode to another. Proposed new transport modes need to be assessed on how well these would integrate with other modes and whether there would be any economical or environmental benefits from adding new solutions.

Digitalisation is as mentioned playing a decisive role in this, meaning standardisation efforts need to include digital aspects as well. Common standards for ticketing and providing passenger information are one part of the job; another aspect is to enable smarter traffic management, automation and capacity increase on existing infrastructure. Because the future will not only hold challenges in terms of carbon reduction, energy efficiency and greening of transport – we will also have to simply transport more on the infrastructure that exists today. Pertinent telecommunication standards like 5G will play a much larger role in multimodal communication and are a vital part of the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) for the European railway system. As with any technology, there are risks and opportunities of digitalisation, including cyber security, highlighting the need for cyber resilience of transport and communication networks.

From a European transport perspective, rail transport between regions across borders in Europe has not exactly been a success story. Railway networks in Europe have been created from the perspective of national needs, and the national networks are still managed by state-owned (monopoly) infrastructure managers. Their functions will have to evolve to managers of transport streams that do not stop at national borders. Better coordination among infrastructure managers is imperative, especially when it comes to path allocation and to the management of extraordinary (crisis) management. One could think of a European entity for rail transport planning and capacity management, modelled after EUROCONTROL. There are now new dynamics to strengthen long-distance rail passenger services – such services need interoperable train sets, but most probably will also need financial support and cooperation between the various stakeholders in the value chain. Such a cooperation model has already been effective for night train services.

"Rail transport between regions across borders in Europe has not exactly been a success story"

European thinking on behalf of the decision-makers, technical standards that describe the architecture for the integration of transport modes, investment in multimodal nodal connection points for both freight and passenger transport – these are the main challenges for making the multimodal dream come true. These seem like high barriers to cross – but very simple measures may already lead to great beneficial effects for transport in Europe. While efforts need to be undertaken to decarbonise each individual mode of transport, political choices need to be made based on the environmental capabilities of the respective mode. For example, if all freight carried by truck over distances longer than 700km (this is roughly the distance one driver can manage in one day) were moved to rail, we could instantly save up to 40 million tonnes in CO2 emissions (see Fig. 2) – and at the same time take a lot of lorries off our roads, thereby making them less congested and much safer.

Benefits of shifting freight to rail

Figure 2 - Benefits of shifting freight to rail

This is just a simple calculation that demonstrates the potential benefit of multimodal transport; in the multimodal logistical chain, all modes of transport have a key role to play, allowing us to make the best use of the respective strengths of each mode. Holistic change across the transport system will also require us to put a price on carbon, and to set achievable emission targets as binding objectives for the different transport modes – but with a clear priority on those transport modes that are inherently low carbon footprint. A new, climate-conscious generation is making its voice heard, it will be thanks to them that we can make this multimodal dream come true.

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