The first electric freight train was built in 1842 by a Scotsman named Robert Davidson. It could travel 6 km/h while carrying 6 tonnes of freight over a distance of 2.4 km. The machine was eventually destroyed in a local luddite revolt but that didn’t stop a transition. Railway activity today in Europe is 70% electric. Rail is a pioneer when it comes to electric technology as it is the only transport mode to electrify the majority of infrastructure (over 50% of infrastructure is electrified in Europe). Although this is good from an emissions perspective, such a feature doesn’t play a determining role in a company’s decision on how to move freight. Rail needs to improve to make the mode more reliable, flexible, and cost-competitive.

Share of railway activity that's electric today in Europe

Issue: National differences in infrastructure

Rail technology differs across European borders; there are different voltage systems (AC/DC), signalling systems, pantograph sizes, and track widths (known as ‘gauges’). Such differences are the result of railway networks being developed nationally and without the single European market in mind. The EU Agency for Railways is tasked with promoting interoperability across these different systems and harmonising technical standards. For such efforts to be successful, EU member states have to collaborate with the Agency.

Recommendation: Standardisation

One of the Agency’s biggest tasks was and remains the deployment of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Europe has close to thirty different signalling systems, creating bottlenecks at borders where trains need to stop for technical and operational reasons. A unified signalling system is an important step to improve border-crossing. Millions of euros were made available via the EU budget to support member states in transitioning to ERTMS. The process is more costly than anticipated though and private financing is now being explored to complete its deployment.

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Issue: Outdated technology

In addition to ERTMS, the EU is investing in research programmes that explore future technologies for rail freight. Shift2Rail is a public private partnership that combines money from the EU’s budget with that of the rail industry to develop strategically-focused research and development projects. The EU’s contribution amounts to €450 million. Only 30% of research financing in Shift2Rail is open for non-industry actors to apply, meaning that industry benefits the most from such research funds. Industry also plays a central role in determining what needs to be researched and defining which calls should be open to non-members.

Shift2Rail is divided into five different research programmes. One of these focuses on rail freight, researching automation of operations and better utilisation of capacity. It also looks at improving locomotive and wagon technology to allow for heavier and faster trains that operate more efficiently and make less noise than today’s trains. The research programme is still ongoing and it’s too early for evaluation.

Recommendation: Increased automation

Rail freight is a very labour intensive industry. Cranes at most terminals are controlled manually and trains are also put together (coupled) manually. 900,000 people are employed in the European rail sector today. Automation is a threat to a lot of these jobs. But automation could make rail freight cheaper, more efficient, and more flexible. Theoretically, wagons could be battery-powered and operate independent of locomotives, which would reduce the economies of scale needed today to make rail freight feasible. Such wagons could be programmed via satellite navigation along predefined routes and would be safe if the right signalling equipment was in place to control movements. Loading and unloading the freight onto the wagon could also be automated

The technological development needed to actually achieve such a rail freight transformation is immense. Furthermore, rail tech is often expensive leading to slow deployment. Standardisation can help in reducing such costs. The employment issues are the same as arise for all jobs under threat by robots, and policy makers bear a heavy responsibility to find solutions..

There are also far less visionary technologies that would have a real impact on improving rail freight performance. For example, a GPS tracker fitted in each train would allow rail freight customers have a real-time understanding of where their goods are. This simple step should become standard practice.

Loading and unloading trains can also be done far more efficiently. For example, trucks fitted with side-loading technology would reduce the need to have cranes at every freight terminal. Such tech exists today but is in limited use and further deployment is critically needed.

Digitalisation will play a major role. Gathering data on freight train operations can help identify bottlenecks for operators and the state to direct investment. Such data should be open to all (while maintaining security requirements) so that researchers are also able to boost efficiency and better understand flows. Data availability could also improve the efficiency of logistics as it could help potential customers become more aware of how rail works and where there is infrastructure located close to their operations. Standardising the “data language” used in rail now will ensure that European rail benefits from digitalisation.

Although technological developments will improve the railway system, the human factor will always play a role. Efficient management of infrastructure, which means the guarantee that tracks are being used as frequently and safely as possible, requires better collaboration between infrastructure managers. Equal treatment of train operators must be present too. The fragmentation of EU infrastructure management  impacts operational efficiency. Unlike air travel, European rail operation doesn’t yet have a common language: 50% of EU rail freight is international so a trip from Antwerp to Milan requires drivers to be proficient in the four languages used along that route. This often means that drivers have to change at borders, causing costly and avoidable delays. A standardised language for international rail operations seems like low-hanging fruit and should be considered at EU-level. If these human inefficiencies aren’t solved then railway workers are at an increased risk that the sector will become automated.


Technological improvements can reduce the external costs of rail, making it cleaner, quieter, and safer. It can also make rail more flexible, faster, and cheaper. Investment in researching such technologies is key and, due to low profits, the companies seem to require state support for such work. The problem with this approach, however, is lack of transparency. Rail needs to provide more data openly to researchers so that solutions can be developed by all interested rather than a few industry actors. Better data on infrastructure use would enable improvements to better manage such infrastructure and logistics. Standardisation of physical technology across Europe can also improve the reliability of rail and the EU Agency for Railways is making progress here. EU member states need to collaborate more with such efforts for rail to have a bright future.

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