Future EU transport must tap into the potential of intermodality

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At the expert round table organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), participants point out that Europeans will see a real benefit from combining different means of air, sea and land transport only if they are reliable, flexible and not expensive.

Intermodal transport and multimodal logistics are the way forward in EU transport, but practical roadblocks that are still hindering the roll-out of these systems need to be overcome. That was the main outcome to emerge from the expert roundtable hosted by the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN) in Brussels and remotely on 24 June 2021.

Intermodality enables passengers and freight to travel quickly, effectively and in an integrated manner through a wide range of transport modes, including by air, sea, rail and road. The advantage of multimodal transport lies in the most efficient combination of multiple means of transport, making use of the strengths of the different modes, such as convenience, speed, cost, reliability and predictability. This, in turn, enhances environmental sustainability and reduces the footprint of transportation, said TEN section president, Baiba Miltoviča, during the debate.

Addressing the problems will make intermodal transport the better choice

At the moment, intermodal transport is more expensive, slower and less reliable than, for example, unimodal road transport. It suffers from disadvantages such as long delivery times, complexity, higher risk and lower reliability. This is mainly due to the absence of proper terminal infrastructure and low levels of investment in smart digital solutions that would streamline the management of multimodal transport flows. A case in point is that rail connections are poorly adapted to the open market context. The upshot of this is a service with insufficient punctuality, reliability, predictability and flexibility.

A long-term viable solution to developing efficient and sustainable intermodal transport and multimodal logistics can only be achieved by rapidly resolving the service level and cost problems, without the need for specific measures, financial support or a dedicated regulatory framework. Multimodality would then be able to play its full part in the transport system and represent an attractive alternative to unimodal road transport.

In this perspective, the TEN section has decided to take action to show that intermodal transport and multimodal logistics can be attractive without relying on the extensive support schemes that have not really solved the problems, and instead actually dealing with the problems that make multimodal transport more expensive, slower and less reliable. This could bring about flexible and optimally efficient transport solutions, adapted to local conditions and reduced emissions, added Stefan Back, TEN section vice-president and rapporteur for the ongoing own-initiative opinion on Intermodal transport and multimodal logistics.

Intermodal connections need investment in infrastructure

Stakeholders taking part in the round table felt that the top priority should be investment in transport hubs and infrastructure if, in line with the green transition objectives, the EU aims to reduce road transport, lower carbon emissions and reach climate neutrality by 2050.

According to Maria Koidu from the European Commission's DG MOVE, if intermodal transport and multimodal logistics are to take off by 2050, support measures will be necessary. She underlined that the potential of intermodality was being held back by the fact that many EU Member States, on top of having very poor terminal facilities, also had inefficient legislation on different transport modes, which added to the very high costs associated with transhipment.

Ralf-Charley Schultze of the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR) pointed to the need for temporary measures to be put in place, which, availing of the momentum brought about by the European Green Deal and its incentives, could lead to the enhancement of infrastructure capacities.

Nicolette van der Jagt, representing the European Association for Forwarding, Transport, Logistics and Customs Services (CLECAT), focused on the quality of service offered and strongly advocated adopting a customer-oriented approach, with a continuous focus on making improvements.

Finally, Martin Mayer from the Sheffield Trade Union Council said that it was essential to study examples of where multimodal transport was already working and why it was successful and then look at the specific corridors in which to invest.

All of these contributions will now feed into the opinion that is due to be adopted at the EESC's July plenary session.


Intermodal transport refuses to take off despite significant progress in recent years, in particular under the Combined Transport Directive. Support has so far taken the form of tax incentives and special treatment with regard to market access. The problem seems to lie in the general efficiency of one or more of the modes involved (quality, speed and punctuality of the services) and insufficient and sub-standard transhipment resources.

The recent Communication on a Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, presented by the European Commission in December 2020, highlighted that better coordination was needed between the Member States regarding the construction of intermodal terminals. It also proposed a number of administrative simplifications and stressed that a promotional approach was important, such as dedicated rules on market access, especially for land transport legs. In the accompanying Action Plan, the Commission states its intention to carry out a review of the regulatory framework for intermodal transport in 2022.

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