Rail freight: the customer is always right

T&E have been managing a rail freight platform since 2015. This platform has provided us with the opportunity to meet with key stakeholders in rail and organise workshops to discuss some of the main setbacks to modal shift. The blog below is the first in a series that will outline what we have learned about why rail freight is not growing in Europe at the rate needed. This series of blogs will also offer some suggestions on how policymakers can play a bigger role in supporting modal shift as a means to decarbonise transport.


Anyone can call a road haulage company and have a truck at their door in a few hours. The same is obviously not possible with rail. Rail is more complex than road transport as there are more actors involved with further advanced planning required. Road transport is flexible and simple. Railway advocates should not shy away from this market reality as it is vital as accepting it is key to addressing the disparity. Ultimately it is the shipper and freight forwarder (ie, the customer) who determines what mode to use, so we need to make it so that they see rail as an attractive alternative to road.

One simple way to make rail more successful is by marketing services to potential customers in a way that showcases what rail can offer in terms of price, speed, security, and CO2 reductions. We’ve spoken with several large shippers at the meetings of our platform and many such companies told us that railway operators are not very responsive to their needs nor do operators appear sufficiently motivated to win new business. Furthermore, we’ve heard on several occasions that shippers were never approached by railway companies to try and win their business. Could it be that rail freight companies are content with their market share? New entrants which need new business to survive could offer more customer-orientated services. Such competition would also force established companies to rethink their strategy. This competition requires national market conditions to be in place – meaning that countries need to ensure fair and equal access to infrastructure

The infrastructure managers really need to communicate better with one another. In Europe, each country has a unique manager for the railway infrastructure within that country. Considering that 50% of rail freight is crossborder, it’s vital that these managers are speaking to one another about capacity, delays, and other relevant information. This would go a long way towards making rail more reliable and faster. The EU’s Regulation on Rail Freight Corridors helps in making this communication more common practice – the scheduled review of this legislation in late 2017 provides an ample opportunity to move towards a single European railway area.

Rail is underutilised in Europe. The customer’s needs should be paid more attention when lawmakers are drafting policy that’s intended to create modal shift. The same holds true for passenger rail. It’s nonsense to ignore the users’ needs when trying to attract more people to travel by train.


Pat Brereton -Researching around Environmental Communication's picture


Fascinating to learn that rail transport is underused in Europe -
With regards to sustainable transport, which promotes a policy around low-carbon energy production and less use of fossil fuels - rail remains a very efficient means of transport.

Also with regards to Ireland, I would certainly support more rail transportation.

Dr Neil Gavin, Senior Lecturer, The University of Liverpool,'s picture


As a researcher in the domain of climate change politics (and its refraction through the media), I thoroughly commend T & E's push on rail policy. Existing rail policy (and road transport policy in parallel) will have to change very substantially across Europe (and in Britain, irrespective of Brexit), if we are to achieve the goal of averting the worst consequences of global warming. So T & E's approach is as valuable as it is commendable.

T. Richards's picture


Unfortunately for the champions of rail policy, there has been too strong a focus by the powerful Road Haulage Associations in both UK and Europe whose sole purpose has been to persuade Governments to invest within road haulage. The changing focus of successive governments away from industrial rail freight and now positively aimed towards rail passenger transportation.
This coupled with the decline of heavy industrial rail freight and rail infrastructure sectors, over the years has led to a wider and growing disparity between rail and road , which results in an ever greater difficulty of rail being able to recapture lost industrial freight.

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About the author

Samuel Kenny's picture

Manager, Sustainable Finance