How can we improve rail freight transport?

Science topics December 2018 TransportInnovationEnergy

By Patrick Niérat, Researcher in transport economics – AME Department, SPLOTT laboratory

At a time when man's footprint is having a significant impact on the environment, major decisions must be taken to make our society more sustainable. Some spatial planning decisions give greater importance to rail transport. 

IFSTTAR researchers are analysing the provision of rail freight services and proposing measures to stimulate them in France.


The current state of rail freight transport in France

Rail traffic was at its peak in 1974, but rail now transports only 40% of the tonnage it did then. Its market share of total tonne-kilometres transported has fallen from 40% to 10%, to the benefit of road transport. The success of the road is largely based on its ability to transport small quantities quickly and its rapid responsiveness. We can gain some important insights by examining the modes of rail production. There are three types of situation. 


  • Case 1 - Customers have private sidings that allow them to have railcars on their premises. Their business provides large volumes of goods. With a 50% market share (in tonne-kilometres), this is the case when a full train is well filled from when it leaves the shipper to when it reaches the receiver. As an area of excellence for rail transport, it provides the lowest costs and shortest transport times.
  • Case 2 - Rail customers possess private sidings but only generate small volumes of freight. This second case (25%) is called single railcars. Railcars are loaded at the shipper's site and unloaded at the receiver’s site when the latter is connected to the network. Routing therefore consists of at least five steps. A local service to take the railcars to a marshalling yard. A sorting process performed to group together railcars with destinations in the same region. Long-distance transport by full train. The railcars are then sorted and delivered to each of the recipients. This organisation makes it possible to obtain good results on the long distance route, but the sorting stages and local services are often costly. The service becomes too expensive and this type of transport takes time.
  • Case 3 - Clients do not always have or use private sidings. The third case (25%) involves rail-road transport. The goods are loaded into an intermodal transport unit (ITU) (container, swap body, etc.) on the shipper's premises. The ITU is transported by truck to a rail-road terminal where it is transferred to a railcar. A train provides long-distance transport to a second terminal from where the UTI is driven by road to the consignee.

Today, this solution is only available on main routes on which traffic flows are large enough for trains to be well filled and frequent and therefore offer costs and delivery times that are comparable to those of the road. The road services often account for more than half of the total cost. This approach theoretically allows transport between any two places, but in practice it is only competitive between locations that lie within terminal market areas.

Organizational diagram of the railway
How can we improve rail freight transport? - Ifsttar - Credit : Ifsttar - P. Niérat


Solutions that are consistent with territory needs

The use of full trains is restricted to large flows from large customers. But it does not meet today’s varied needs that are dispersed throughout the country and involve small quantities. To gain market share, it is therefore necessary to rely on the solutions proposed in cases 2 and 3. Spatial planning measures exist to reduce the cost of local services and improve the situation.

In case 2, it is necessary to increase the number of railcars in order to reduce the unit cost of services. To do this, it is necessary to locate companies which are potentially interested in rail transport along certain existing small lines in order to consolidate traffic and reduce costs.

For case 3, it is essential to locate the terminals appropriately in relation to the existing potential. Poorly located terminals do not capture traffic. There are undoubtedly other technical solutions, but it must be borne in mind that the location of clients in relation to infrastructure is of major factor with regard to results. A superb technical solution in the middle of the desert serves no purpose...




To find out more...

Niérat, Patrick. (2011). Report modal : un problème de réseaux ou une question de services ?. Recherche - Transports - Sécurité. 27. 273-282. 10.1007/s13547-011-0024-2. 

Niérat, Patrick & Franc, Pierre & Knitschky, Gunnar & Lenz, Barbara. (2009). Organisation et coût des dessertes terminales ferroviaires. 95-126.