top of page

Switching Tracks in Freight Logistics: Rail's revival vs. Road's uncertain horizon

Written by Victor Chartier in collaboration with Christine Vanoppen

Despite the steady growth of rail freight demand in France since the 1960s, its market share has been gradually eroded by road freight, which expanded from a 34% market share in 1960 to 89% in 2022. This trend is not unique to France; Europe has followed suit. Fortunately, as the urgency for climate action intensifies, governments are setting ambitious targets. For instance, Belgium aims to double the volume of goods transported by rail by 2030, potentially removing 11 million truckloads from its roads and reducing CO2 emissions by 1.5 million tons annually. 

As Europe prepares for a new political mandate from June 2024, it is worth noting that rail freight emits 82% less CO2eq/ than road freight. While all stakeholders, including shippers, acknowledge the environmental advantages of rail freight, the transition requires significant resources and strategic planning. 

Road vs Rail Freight: who holds the upper hand? 

Rail freight offers several benefits, including a smaller environmental footprint and high loading capacities. However, it is often perceived as inflexible, unreliable, and costly. Rail freight is constrained by infrastructure issues, such as under-maintenance and under-investment, and the lack of uniform circulation standards and network interoperability across Europe. These factors increase the risk of unpredictable disruptions and operational constraints. 

advantages & disadvantages of road freight & rail freight

In contrast, road freight has been more cost-effective and beneficial for shippers in the short term, thanks to limited investment requirements and low-cost fuel. In a globalized world where cost, time, and flexibility are key decision drivers, road freight has held the advantage. 


Nevertheless, for a correct comparison between road and rail it is crucial to consider the external costs as well. These encompass the higher accident frequency in road transport, 80 times that of rail, and road congestion, eased by a single train replacing up to 50 trucks. These factors contribute to societal costs, which in Belgium exceed 600 million € annually. In addition to these considerations, rail transport could prove cost-effective for distances as short as 62,5 km, when only counting direct and time costs., (Hintjens, 2019)(1)

Will Road Freight maintain its advantage in the next 5 years? 

The future of road freight's dominance is uncertain, and the business case merits individual assessment. Several challenges are looming: 

  • Driver shortage (2) With 10% of driver positions unfilled in 2021, this figure is projected to rise to 17% in 2028. Road freight requires more drivers per transported than rail freight. A modal shift from road to rail could be a pragmatic solution to this issue. 

  • Fuel supply risks Although forecasts for 2024 suggest stability in fossil fuel costs, the supply is heavily influenced by geopolitical developments in unstable regions. With 80% (3) of Europe's rail tracks electrified, rail freight offers a viable long-term alternative to fossil fuel dependency. 

  • Operating costs Besides driver and fuel costs, tolls are becoming a focal point. From 2024, the EU directive requires member states to set CO2 emissions-based toll prices for road freight. Considering the cost projections (4) and regulations impacting road freight, the business case for rail freight deserves a second look. 

  • Lower emissions alternatives Decarbonized technologies could potentially rescue road freight. However, options like biofuels, hydrogen, and electric trucks face challenges related to supply, infrastructure, affordability, and energy consumption.  While increasing truck size could improve productivity, it raises concerns about road infrastructure (in particular bridges), safety, and energy savings. The European Weights & Dimensions Directive, although promising when regarding truck productivity, overlooks the wider transport sector and its implementation will be slow and expensive. 

Over the next decade, road freight costs will inevitably rise due to the integration of the transport sector in the ETS II from 2027 coupled with a scaled transition to green energy marked by a shift from fossil fuel to electricity, and the gradual internalization of other external costs. 

In summary, road freight is walking a tightrope. While a structural and environmental shift is necessary, one thing is clear: road freight will not be self-sufficient in the long term.  

Shippers must embrace network complexity 

Reducing the environmental impact of inland logistics is achievable through modal shift and intermodality. However, this requires shippers to take the lead in re-designing internal processes and management approaches. 

Transitioning from road freight to rail or a combination of both will impact lead times, stock levels, and the number of suppliers, orders, and routes. As a result, logistic networks will become more complex, necessitating resilient and efficient risk management processes and communication channels.  

In the final part of this article, I share insights from an interview with Christine Vanoppen, ESG Manager at Lineas, a private rail freight operator in Belgium. The conversation underscores the urgent need for action from all stakeholders in the logistics landscape and much more… 

Interview: Can Rail Freight Overtake Road Freight in the Logistics Race?

Victor Chartier: Thank you very much for your valuable time. As someone with a Logistics Procurement and Supply-Chain background, I would like to focus on Lineas as an organization, then on the challenges faced by your customers, and finally the sector’s transition efforts. 

So, first of all, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, Lineas, and your role as ESG manager? 

Christine: Lineas, Europe's largest private rail freight operator, has a broad operational footprint spanning from the far north to the south and east of the continent. Our headquarters are in Brussels, with additional establishments in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. 

We primarily serve customers in the steel sector, including clients like Arcelor Mittal and Aperam, the chemical sector with BASF, and the automotive sector, including Volvo. Our strategic positioning connects us to key ports and the industrial heart of Europe. 

As a Railway Undertaking (RU), we hold leading positions in several markets: ranking 1st in Belgium, 2nd in the Netherlands, 5th in France, and 7th in Germany. 

We face competition on two fronts: from other highly integrated incumbent RUs, such as DB and SNCF, and from other freight transport modes, with road freight being our most significant competitor. 

In my role as ESG Manager, I oversee ESG-related topics and support initiatives aimed at fostering a level playing field within the logistics sector. This role involves close collaboration with the communications and public affairs teams at Lineas. 


Could you elaborate on how Lineas, as a rail provider, reduces its environmental impact? 

Christine: I would first like to highlight that rail is already today the most sustainable mode of land freight transportation. Compared to its closest alternative, road freight, rail emits 6 to 9 times less CO2 and is 6 times more energy efficient. Rail's notable advantage is its capacity to ease congestion, especially on the road, and uphold safety standards. Shifting goods to rail could save society significant costs annually. 

However, Lineas is committed to lead by example and further reduce its environmental impact. Our strategy includes: 

  • Setting Science-Based Targets (SBTs) to reduce scope 1 and 2 emissions by 42% by 2030 compared to 2021. 

  • Testing and adopting biofuels to phase out fossil fuels, with Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO) already being implemented. 

  • Shifting to green electricity purchases. 

  • Implementing eco-driving practices. 

  • Greening our car fleet. 


Through my experience, I realized Rail freight is often perceived as more expensive than road freight. What is your view on the current business case and what changes are needed for a balanced comparison?  

Christine: Rail freight costs are highly dependent on the transported volume per train, requiring more consolidation compared to road freight. This necessitates additional coordination and consequently requires longer distances to achieve cost parity with road freight. However, this is only part of the equation. 

Road freight transport benefits from several competition-distorting advantages such as not being blocked by language barriers, lighter driving training, fossil fuels exempt from carbon taxation, and less comprehensive internalization of external costs. For instance, the road freight sector in Europe receives an implicit subsidy of over €300bn per year due to underpayment of its external costs (5)

To create a level playing field, equal taxation or indirect subsidies should be considered. Rail should be compensated for its external benefits. Standardization is also crucial for cross-border connectivity, for example, through the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). 

Financial incentives could expedite the rollout of technological innovations, enhancing rail's flexibility and reliability. These include Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC), Digital Capacity Management (DCM), and Autonomous Train Operation (ATO). 

Another element preventing a modal shift is the challenge of ensuring reliability and comparability in the operational business case for rail. What changes are needed at the customer level, and how can you, as a rail operator, support these changes? 

Christine: Customers may often lack logistics expertise, as not being their core business, face challenges in managing complex networks and foreseeing impacts like road congestion or the intricacies of operating rail. Building transparency with customers is necessary and Lineas is investing in this sense in the 'MyLineas' platform to address the need. 

The current logistics paradigm, heavily reliant on the Just in Time principle, may need revisiting considering increasing supply chain risks. Maintaining supply chain resilience is becoming a significant challenge. 

The question arises whether it would be more beneficial to increase stock levels and use rail freight with longer lead times, rather than continue relying on road freight, which is subject to fluctuating fuel prices, driver shortages, and market volatility. 

The Ever Given incident in the Suez Canal in 2021 highlighted the devastating impact of disruptions in global supply chains. With the rapidly changing geo-political context, the risk of such disruptions is increasing, necessitating more buffers in the supply chain.  

Rail can play a crucial role here, enabling massification throughout the supply chain and extending its services, such as stock management. This approach could offset the costs of disruptions, which often exceed the savings from maintaining minimal stock levels. 


Harmonization of the European rail network is crucial for environmental transition. What are the top priority changes needed in the sector for a massive shift from road to rail? 

Christine: A few years ago, we conducted a detailed assessment for Belgium. It is clear that doubling rail freight volumes and enabling the modal shift will require cooperation from all parties involved: 

  • Infrastructure Managers (IMs) need to urgently improve capacity and flow management, adopt a customer-first attitude, enhance harmonization and interoperability for cross-border traffic, and implement effective performance management. 

  • Regulators should stimulate innovation and operational efficiency through appropriate regulation, such as language rules, and further standardize and harmonize rules across Europe. 

  • Governments should adopt an end-to-end approach, supporting each phase of the supply chain. This includes compensating road transport for transshipment costs, co-financing investments in trimodal assets and equipment for trucking and shippers, and supporting Railway Undertakings (RUs) for transport covering distances under 600 km. 

  • RUs should increase efficiency, achieve economies of scale, minimize throughput in shunting yards, and improve product attractiveness in terms of reliability and transport lead times. They should also increase transparency through standardized data exchange. The rollout of the technologies mentioned earlier will facilitate this. 

With these measures in place, customer awareness and willingness to consider rail will increase, leading to more volume shifted to rail. 


From all your answers I understand Rail has a lot of potential already, but some companies are still reluctant to switch to rail. What barriers exist and how can they be overcome? 

Christine: As previously mentioned, Railway Undertakings (RUs) must enhance the flexibility and reliability of their services. In this regard, significant strides are being made with the rollout of the key technologies mentioned earlier. Customer focus, with pro-active communication and transparency is also a crucial factor for our customers and potential customers. 

In this context, Lineas has made a significant advancement with the launch of the 'MyLineas' platform. This digital supply chain integration platform, developed for our customers, connects partners and customers through the integration of data from the RU, Infrastructure Managers (IMs), field operations, and GPS. It provides real-time tracking and tracing information, such as Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA), along with embedded reporting, planning, forecasting functionalities, and self-service features. 

For reference, key features of 'MyLineas' include: 

  • A state-of-the-art, customer-centric approach, keeping the customer at the heart of the supply chain with a digital view of operations. 

  • A one-stop-shop service for customers. 

  • Facilitation of active cooperation between all parties involved. 

  • Seamless integration of rail freight into the operations and logistics processes of our customers. 

  • Further integration of the supply chain, such as taking on more tasks like stock management, is also being foreseen. 


One last question if I may. If you had to picture a post-environmental transition logistics landscape, how would you envision it? 

Christine: It is a transport system whereby there is a true level playing field between the three modes of land freight transport: each mode pays its fair share of external costs. When market mechanisms fail, government intervention is necessary to maintain this balance without favouring one mode over another. 

This vision includes an efficiently managed, fully interoperable rail network. 

In such a context, customers will choose the most economically efficient transport solution. This could mean opting for road transport when high flexibility, short lead times, and low volumes are required. Conversely, for higher volumes that need to be transported over longer distances (starting from 100km) and can accommodate some flexibility in lead time, rail transportation would be the preferred choice. Moreover, in many cases the combination of rail for the long-distance leg of the transport and road for the first/last mile will be the ideal logistical solution. 

Charting a Multi-Modal, Innovative Path in Logistics 

In conclusion, this insightful discussion emphasizes the need for all stakeholders in the logistics landscape to act urgently. 

EU institutions and governments must prioritize the harmonization of the European rail network and implement necessary regulatory changes to facilitate a significant modal shift from road to rail. This is not just about reducing our environmental impact and promoting sustainability, but also about improving efficiency and long-term competitiveness. 

For shippers yet to embrace the transition, the conversation highlights the importance of embracing the potential of rail freight and intermodality in optimizing networks. The complexity of this shift should not be a deterrent, but rather a call to seek knowledge and collaborate. Shippers, are you ready to challenge your network? 

  1. Take a step back and discard preconceived notions. 

  2. Design creative solutions. 

  3. Discuss feasibility with partners. 

  4. Implement! 

The future of logistics is not just about firefighting transitions but leading them. The tools for a sustainable shift in logistics already exist, and we're here to support you in navigating this transition. 


Need help to future-proof your supply chain or simply want to know more?

Reach out to Victor Chartier.

You already know where to go and are looking for a strong rail freight partner? Reach out to Christine Vanoppen

logo lineas


1 Hintjes, J., 2019, Cooperation between seaports concerning hinterland transport, Universiteit Antwerpen, Faculty of Economics and Business, Department of Transport and Regional Economics, p. 119-120 

5 DG Move’s study (2019), "State of play of Internalisation" part, p. 52. The underlying subtotals in the table can be found in an Excel annex (file "Annex D Final_total_avg_Cross Modal Comparisons.xlsx", sheet "Variable_ext_infra_CC", area A3:K18). 


bottom of page