The new Rail Freight Forward initiative chair talks modal shift, digitalization, and fair competition

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Dr Sigrid Nikutta, chair of the Rail Freight Forward initiative, explores how the goal of a 30% modal share for climate-friendly rail freight transport can be achieved in just a few years with the help of digitalization and fair competition.

Dr Clemens Först (left) & Dr Sigrid Nikutta (right). © ÖBB/Widmann
Dr Clemens Först (left) & Dr Sigrid Nikutta (right). © ÖBB/Widmann

“If we succeed in transporting more goods by rail, we will also succeed in meeting the European Union’s climate targets. Achieving a 30% share in the continental transport mix for freight trains is possible – with the digitalization and automation of rail transport,” said Dr Sigrid Nikutta, who is the new chair of the Rail Freight Forward initiative, a coalition of European rail freight companies.

Dr Nikutta, DB board member for freight transport and head of DB Cargo AG, has taken over the baton from Dr Clemens Först, board spokesman of the ÖBB subsidiary Rail Cargo Group. Först chaired the European rail freight initiative for five years, ever since it was founded.

“Rail is in Europe’s DNA! With more than 260,000 km of rail lines, Europe has the largest continental environmental network in the world,” said Nikutta. Compared to road transport, each freight train emitted 80% to 100% less CO2 and replaced more than 50 trucks at a time,” she added.

The task now is to digitalize the proven and resilient mode of rail freight transport and further expand rail capacity. One key to this is implementing uniform standards for rail in all of Europe. Whether it be installing digital signaling systems such as ETCS or new couplers on freight cars like the Digital Automatic Coupler (DAC).

“Modernizing rail is a Herculean task that cannot be left to the transport companies or the rules of the market alone. Investment in the rail system is worth it - it pays off for climate protection in Europe and the world,” explained Nikutta. “A strong Europe is more important than ever in the face of global challenges. And rail makes Europe strong - no other continent has such a dense network.”

Rail Cargo Group’s CEO Clemens Först, added, “Five years ago, we launched the Noah’s Train art project to bring the climate saver on rails to people’s attention. Since then, there has been a new awareness in society and in politics of climate protection. Transportation is a significant part of the climate problem, and rail is a fundamental part of the solution. That’s why we’re not only driving innovation in rail freight, but also fighting for fair competitive conditions vis-à-vis road transportation and for more capacity in the rail network.”

The alliance is calling for the opportunity to make driving a train across Europe as easy as driving a truck, without rail transport being financially disadvantaged in the process.

At the transport logistic trade show in Munich this week (May 9-12, 2023), the industry is standing together: “The goal of a 30% modal share for climate-friendly rail freight transport can be achieved in just a few years. It can be done if there is support at European level for the huge task of expanding the network and upgrading to digital standards in rail freight,” added Dr Nikutta.

Freight trains generally receive a green signal at borders - 60% of all trains cross at least one national border. Around 50,000 to 60,000 freight trains per week bring provisions to the continent, with its approximately 450 million people and their businesses and industries. Ten European rail freight corridors (RFCs) provide a backbone for the European economy.

About Rail Freight Forward
Rail Freight Forward is a coalition of European rail freight companies that are committed to drastically reducing the negative impact of freight transport on the environment through innovations and an intelligent transport mix. The coalition aims to increase the modal share of rail freight in Europe to 30% by 2030 as the better macro-economic solution for European growth. It mobilizes railway undertakings, infrastructure providers and politicians in Europe to act to realize this modal shift. Rail Freight Forward is a large coalition that is constantly growing.

Note: This article was first published by ÖBB