Multimodal freight transport: let's make it happen!

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The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) points out that efficient and sustainable multimodal transport and logistics can become a reality only by dealing with the problems that make them more expensive, slower and less reliable than unimodal road transport. Merely introducing a new regulatory framework on the subject or injecting additional funding will not help.

Moving goods using a combination of water and land transportation will be easier in Europe as soon as problems affecting intermodality are solved. In the opinion drafted by Stefan Back and adopted at the July plenary session, the Committee notes that lack of interoperability and poor infrastructure have a major impact on the development of integrated freight transport, often leaving operators no choice other than to use road transport. This in turn has a negative knock-on effect on the environment.

Commenting on the adoption of the opinion, Mr Back pointed out that the EU needed a pragmatic, resource-efficient approach from a regulatory point of view: We need to address the pending issues directly and solve them quickly. Multimodal transport and logistics must be efficient and sustainable, not more expensive, slower and less reliable than, in particular, unimodal road transport. A long-term viable solution cannot be built just by setting up a new dedicated regulatory framework or injecting new financial resources.

Making multimodal transport attractive and competitive

The European Commission's upcoming intermodal transport regulatory framework review should not therefore add new rules or funding but deal with the specific problems.

Currently, multimodal freight transport lacks efficiency and sustainability. Combining different modes of transport on water and land nowadays entails considerable expense due to transhipment and transaction costs, on top of disadvantages such as long delivery times, complexity, higher risk and less reliability. Limited capacity in multimodal terminals and logistics hubs may cause additional bottlenecks.

Given all of the above, multimodal transport is not at present very attractive.

In order to play its full part in the transport system, multimodal transport must become competitive in its own right and achieve efficient and seamless flows at the same cost as unimodal transport.

Rail transport in particular needs to better adapt to an open market context and remedy problems such as lack of punctuality, reliability, predictability and flexibility, which have a negative impact on multimodal solutions involving rail.

On top of this, the EESC recommends the full internalisation of external costs for all transport modes to obtain a level playing field.

Investing in infrastructure and digital tools

To improve multimodal traffic, the Committee also supports investment in terminal infrastructure and technical innovation.

More specifically, the Committee calls for serious measures to safeguard and/or relaunch a European single wagon load system, to link strategic infrastructure (e.g. ports) to rail solutions, to invest in industrial sidings and to involve large logistics companies in a modal reorientation of their flows.

A key to successful intermodality is appropriate terminal infrastructure. Public investment in this should not be counted as generating public debt and should be exempt from the provisions of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition, in border regions, in order to optimise the use of resources, Member States should work together to plan terminals, adapting their distance to demand, density of the network and other local conditions.

Finally, an important role could also be played by smart digital solutions such as track and tracing possibilities and other digital tools facilitating the effective management of multimodal transport flows.


According to the European Commission's December 2020 Communication on a Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, intermodal transport needs a substantial revamp to become more effective.

For the purposes of supporting the greening of cargo operations in Europe, the Commission plans to review the existing regulatory framework, including the Combined Transport Directive, in 2022 and is considering introducing economic incentives for both operations and infrastructure.

Multimodal transport plays an important role in the Strategy, which aims to secure environmentally friendly transport modes and reduce the predominance of road haulage, with a view to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050.

See also