The freight sector needs an improved rail system and climate-neutral roads.

The freight transport sector is growing, and with it, CO2 emissions. In 2004, the total weight of goods shipped in Germany amounted to 4 billion metric tonnes.138 Within 10 years, it had risen to 4.5 billion metric tonnes. Between 1990 and 2014, freight traffic increased by around 350 billion ton-kilometres to 653 billion ton-kilometres.

During the same period, freight CO2 emissions rose from 37 million tonnes to 59 million tonnes, around a third of the CO2 emitted from the transport sector (see figure 8.1).

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport has forecast that by 2030 freight traffic will have grown 38% over 2010 levels.139 In view of this growth, the decarbonisation of freight traffic can be achieved only if final energy demand drops significantly and fossil fuels are replaced by wind and solar power and by renewables-based fuels (see Insights 6 and 7).

Standing in the way of this objective is the uneven distribution of road and rail freight. Trucks make up 71% of freight traffic; trains, only 18% (figure 8.1).140

But one tonne-kilometre by freight train requires only around 20% of the energy of one tonne-kilometre by truck, and causes only around 25% of its harmful climate emissions (figure 8.2).

Hence, even with the imminent shift to ever greater shares of renewable electricity for road transport, the existing rail system is more efficient than trucks. Another reason to bolster rail traffic is that there’s not enough available land for expanding the highway system so that it can handle more freight traffic. Both these factors speak for significantly increasing the share of rail freight transport.

Nevertheless, current forecasts expect that trucks will continue to haul most of Germany’s freight well into the future. For this reason, it is important that trucks be outfitted with carbon-neutral powertrains and fuels. Moreover, a system for powering long-haul freight trucks must be introduced at the European level.

138. See Hütter, A. (2016).
139. See BMVI (2014), p. 8.
140. These figures are from the German Environment Agency (UBA), Emissionen des Straßenverkehrs in Tonnen 2014, Tremod 5.63. The share of ship transport is 9%; air freight amounts to only 2%.

  • Competitive rail freight maximises railway’s potential.

    For a while now, politicians have been calling for a shift of freight traffic from roads to rails. Germany’s 2002 national sustainability strategy aimed to increase rail freight by 25% by 2015. Germany fell well short of this objective, however, and made no mention of new targets in its 2016 sustainability strategy. The EU Commission will also fail to reach its current goal of using trains and ships to reduce 30% of road freight traffic for distances greater than 300 kilometres if the conditions for rail freight transport do not improve.141 Advances are needed in rail logistics, infrastructure, financing and noise abatement. Moreover, while rail freight is more efficient than road transport, it must use its energy more economically.

    There are various ways to transport goods by rail:

    • Unit trains (i.e. trains in which all cars carry the
    • same good)
    • wagonload freight and
    • less than wagonload freight.

    Traditionally, the benefits of rail are maximised when large loads are transported over long distances. For example, unit trains are often used for large volume commodity shipments (e.g. wood pellets or recycled materials). Today, high-value production and consumer goods are being transported in increasingly smaller payloads, as unit trains are only responsible for a portion of the shipping in this segment (e.g. in seaport hinterland transport).

    Unit trains play an important role in what is known as combined transport (CT). Containers or other swap bodies are brought by truck to CT terminals where they are loaded onto trains. When the trains arrive at their destination CT terminal, their loads are placed on trucks and driven to the recipient. These terminals are crucial for the integration of road and rail traffic.

    Due to the dominance of just-in-time production processes, many companies today are no longer able to full an entire train with goods. The demand for transport of single wagons serves combined transport and individual cars and wagonload freight, in which cars and wagon groups are put together at railroad yards. This bundling is economically necessary but still too expensive and slow compared with road transport. Automation and digitalisation can decrease costs, increase efficiency and make rail traffic a more appealing option.

    One problem is that many companies that produce goods suited to rail transport no longer possess their own sidings connecting the factory with the railway system. Abandoned industrial tracks should be checked to see if a reactivation is possible and beneficial. By contrast, companies without their own sidings that ship less than wagonloads must rely on logistics centres. These centres enable intermodal transport chains based on flexible combinations of wagonload freight and less than wagonload freight. Intermodal logistics centres like these can also function as hub-and-spoke networks. They enable the smart bundling of and reassembly of trains at hubs, channelling trains along radials, or spokes, that extend from the hubs. Shipments do not necessarily take the shortest path from point A to point B, but this system ensures that trains are efficiently loaded, which saves costs.

    If rail freight becomes more appealing, the pressures to expand rail capacity will increase. In 2014, rail freight totalled 117 billion tonne-kilometres. The climate change scenario of Germany’s Environment Agency projects that rail freight could rise to 280 billion tonne-kilometres by 2050, while the business-as-usual scenario forecasts only 186 billion tonne-kilometres.142 Accordingly, the growth potential of rail is large, provided existing capacities are better used by expanding the rail system and avoiding hub bottlenecks. The top priority must be to enlarge the main corridors that lead from the ports along the German North Sea and in Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

    One reason why more freight traffic hasn’t shifted from roads to rails, despite decades-long calls for action, is the uneven cost burden. This is particularly visible in the differences in fees levied on rail lines and trucks and in the state taxes on electricity and diesel. The price indices in Figure 8.3 show the discrepancies caused by unequal fees on rail and road freight traffic.

    The central levers that could close the cost gaps are (1) levying tolls on all trucks and streets based on the external costs of CO2143 and (2) lowering track fees for trains.Moreover, the government must do more to monitor and sanction widespread price dumping in the road freight sector – another factor that tilts competition against rail freight.

    Although railways are better for the environment than road transport, they must be made better still. This is especially true because their environmental advantage vanishes once carbon-neutral trucks hit the roads in significant numbers. Railway lines yet to be electrified should be made so as soon as possible. If good arguments speak against electrifying certain sections of track (for example, because they are used infrequently), hydrogen- or battery-powered trains are good alternatives. If diesel locomotives continue to be used, new standards must be introduced to reduce harmful pollutants. Moreover, the public acceptance of freight lines can be improved significantly if trains are equipped with modern braking systems that make rail traffic much quieter.
    But even if rail capacity in Germany increases markedly and all goods suited for rail are carried by rail, current growth forecasts predict that by 2050 rail freight will make up no more than 30% of Germany’s total freight transport (in tonne-kilometres).144 A complete decarbonisation of freight traffic will require a significant shift from road transport to railways together with the development of efficient, carbon-neutral trucks.

    141. EU-KOM (2011), p. 9.
    142. See Ifeu, INFRAS, LBST (2016).
    143. INFRAS, Fraunhofer ISI (2016)
    144. See INFRAS, Fraunhofer ISI (2016).

  • European policies show the way to the carbon-neutral truck

    The clean-energy propulsion option that will dominate heavy long-haul trucking is still unclear. Until we know which technology will come out on top, other means will be necessary to make heavy long-haul trucks145 run more efficiently, including better powertrains, better aerodynamics, less rolling friction, lighter construction, speed limits and optimised auxiliary consumers. The potential for improving efficiency is considerable.
    Semi-trailer trucks with a total permissible weight of 40 tonnes (standard for long-haul trucks) have a savings potential of 25 to 40%.146 Such savings are primarily achievable with binding CO2 fleet targets, such as those the EU introduced for passenger cars and light utility vehicles in 2009. The EU Commission is currently preparing draft regulation for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles. In the future, additional efficiency gains might be obtained through platooning – the coupling of multiple semiautonomous trucks on highways, and well-coordinated drafting.

    In 2017, Germany permitted extra-long trucks known as gigaliners on certain types of roads. These trucks, which may have a maximum length of 18.75 metres, have been criticised for distorting competition between rails and roads in favour of the latter.147 Germany does not plan on lifting the total allowable weight from 40 tonnes (or 44 tonnes in combined traffic) to the 60 tonnes permitted in the Netherlands and Denmark and the 64 tonnes permitted in Sweden, though it’s doubtful that this restriction will remain for long. Moreover, the 1.3-meter increase in permissible semi-trailer length will lead to the gradual replacement of existing semi-trailers.148 But these extra-long trucks will not fit the wagons used in Europe for combined traffic. In the face of evidence that the combined traffic sector is weakening, reforms to oversize truck regulations are urgently needed.

    Due to its nature, long-haul truck transport frequently crosses national borders. Accordingly, carbon-neutral approaches to motive power must be coordinated at the European level, so that each country has the necessary infrastructure (such as an overhead contact system). If this doesn’t happen, logistics companies won’t decide to retrofit their diesel trucks or switch to new freight systems. And vehicle manufacturers won’t decide to introduce new, low-carbon models. There are various electricity-based powertrain concepts for long-haul road freight in the post-fossil age (figure 8.4). Advanced biofuels are subject to the restrictions as described under Insight 7.

    As with passenger cars, the most efficient and economical option for decarbonisation is the direct use of electricity from sun and wind. But based on foreseeable technological developments, batteries in 2050 will still fall short of typical ranges in the long-distance freight traffic, where semi-trailers and trucks weighing up to 40 tonnes make trips of 1,000 kilometres and more.149 The most affordable option to avoid range restrictions combines overhead contact lines with carbon-neutral P2L diesel and/or batteries for sections of road outside the overhead system.150 Besides technology, the largest difficulty consists in the coordination of international funding and in the construction of a Europe-wide overhead contact line infrastructure. By contrast, a solution with P2L diesel as a drop-in fuel would face fewer obstacles to implementation.

    Trucks powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) that can use liquefied P2G methane in the future offer both opportunities and risks for the transformation of the transport sector. On the one hand, LNG trucks are already available today and a LNG station network is currently in preparation. Moreover, LNG trucks produce less (albeit marginally) GHG emissions than diesel trucks,151 and the production of synthetic liquid methane is somewhat more efficient than P2L. On the other hand, national gas is a fossil fuel and, as such, can at most serve as a bridge technology (Insight 6). If the LNG technology is expanded, the resulting path dependencies will make it more difficult to switch to CO2-free trucks. Furthermore, investments in LNG vehicles and fuelling stations will lower the chances of implementing overhead contact lines or fuel-cell systems.

    But it should be noted that discussions about electricity-based fuels such as liquefied P2G methane have mostly taken place in Germany. At any rate, the example of LNG shows that the German federal government and the EU Commission must develop a coordinated propulsion system at the European level. At the same time, governments must focus on bringing out about a significant increase in vehicle efficiency.

    145. Here, the term truck includes semi-trailers.
    146. See Ifeu, TU Graz (2015), p. 22; and Mock, P. (2016), p. 15.
    147. See Sonntag, H.; Liedtke, G. (2015).
    148. See BASt (2016).
    149. See INFRAS, Quantis (2015).
    150. See Öko-Institut, KIT, INFRAS (2016).
    151. See Ifeu, TU Graz (2015). The carbon intensity of LNG varies greatly depending on supply paths and upstream chains.

Stay in touch. Subscribe to our newsletter.