Saturday 22nd Oct 2016 - Logistics Manager

Road freight in Europe

Supporting intermodal transport has been a major part of the European Commission’s (EC) 2001 white paper – European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to decide. The EC’s aim is to support the efficient door-to-door movement of freight using two or more modes of transport, in an integrated transport chain.

Each mode has its own advantages in terms of potential capacity, high levels of safety, flexibility, low energy consumption and low environmental impact. The idea is that intermodal transport allows each mode to play its role in building transport chains which overall are more efficient, cost-effective and sustainable.

In terms of logistics processes the demand for goods and services translates into demand for transport. It is only through understanding the logistics processes and trends that the EC can develop and implement transport policies that meet the current and future needs of Europe’s economy.

As such, transport is very important for Europe – without it there would be few markets. To this end the EC, while still striving towards the objective of intermodalism, also has to consider the role of road transport.

But there is a dilemma for the EC. On the one hand there is recognition, and general acceptance, that efforts must continue to address the imbalance between the different transport modes, and encourage rail and water in preference to road. This is on the grounds of greater sustainability.

But, on the other hand there is also a pragmatic acceptance that road still remains a dominant mode, and will continue to do so for some time despite the impact on Europe’s overstretched roads. Within such a context the EC is determined that the road freight sector operates within a regulatory framework that does not distort competition, is safe and professional.

Over past years the EC’s responsibilities in the road freight sector have been built up in successive stages. It has been found that progress had to be made on specific points within national rules and regulations governing this sector. The aim has been to ensure common development and improvements throughout the EU.

As in all fields, the EC’s role is not to replace the competence of member states, but through subsidiarity, to ensure that they are exercised in a convergent manner removing contradictory distortions in the light of political and strategic objectives jointly worked out. There are two basic aims:

lTo strive for optimum and uniform conditions to make the provision of services in the road freight sector secure, efficient and of high quality in the interests of users, transport operators and suppliers of services.

lTo seek to establish a European area, competitive and integrated for the transport of goods by road – since May 1, 2004 this movement towards integration also encompasses the new member states which have joined the EU.

However, according to the EC, the future of the road freight sector can no longer be envisaged without a medium term global view of the EC’s transport policy as analysed in the 2001 White Paper. With the environment and energy challenges facing Europe today, the pursuit of a policy mainly focused on freight trucks cannot be viable either for the community or for the sector itself, as sooner or later the whole system would grind to a halt.

Therefore, the EC points out that any strategy to enhance the efficiency of road transport must be viewed in the context of restoring the balance between the various modes of transport which includes:

  • Road transport.
  • Railways.
  • Internal waterways.
  • Marine transport – ocean and coastal shipping.

Such an approach means that there is more at stake than the road transport sector alone, as it raises the problem of ensuring the best possible allocation of financial resources among the transport infrastructures. This aspect is at the heart of the debate on road tolls and users charges.

Flexible service

Hundreds of thousands of freight lorries travel daily across Europe. Their main advantage, from a customer logistics perspective, is the lorry’s flexibility and ability to provide a door-to-door distribution service. From 1991 to 2001 the volume in terms of millions of tonne-kilometres of goods carried by road among the 15 member states rose by 3.5% a year – a 38% increase over the decade. Overall, road accounted for 45% of goods transported in the EU in 2001.

There has also been a boom in cross-border EU transport. The figures are even more significant if one differentiates between domestic goods transport within the member states and the growth of intra-EU trade since 2001. The latter, at EU level, represented more than a fifth of the 1,400 million tonnes kilometres carried by road in 2001.

Goods carried in this way across borders show an 18% increase compared with 1998, an average growth twice that of domestic road transport within each member state. Overall total road freight transport in the EU is expected to grow by about 50% by 2010, adding about 12 billion tonne-kilometres per year to international road freight.

It is clear therefore that freight road transport is an important factor underpinning the development of the EU’s internal market. The more this market opens up and becomes unified the more the road freight sector benefits in terms of its own growth.

The road freight market as such is also a pillar of this single market in its own right. Through a long process, the basis for the road freight sector’s Europeanisiation has been laid since 1998. Every operator in the sector has the right to settle and freely exercise his activities throughout the EU.

Opening up the road freight market to competition calls for major efforts towards harmonisation and simplifications of many factors determining the balanced and effective economic development of the sector. The specific rules governing road transport, in particular with regard to taxation and charges, tolls and levies for the use of the infrastructure are made up by distinct national legislation. The regulatory mosaic is composed of numerous elements with unequal costs, distorting competition.

This situation prevents the optimum allocation of resources and hampers competitiveness in economic activity. The overall aim of the EC rules worked out for the road freight sector has been twofold:

  • To strive for clarity.
  • To open up the market in a balanced manner to the benefit of a large number of transport operators.

Environmental impact

There is no doubt that the road freight sector has been very successful, in increasing its market share. However, the EC believes that the road freight sector has been a victim of its own success. A long with car traffic, the road freight sector contributes to the increasingly frequent saturation of the capacity of Europe’s roads.

The need to share the network infrastructure with other road users also raises the important aspect of safety. Additionally, the impact on the environment, in particular in connection with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is of concern for the EC. The ever-growing number of road freight vehicles on Europe’s roads, now numbering more than 20 million, is a contributing factor.

Specific reference is made to the eco-systems of the Alpine regions, where dense lorry traffic transiting between the south, east and north of Europe is necessarily concentrated on a limited number of routes, such as tunnels and passes. These are suffering critical environmental decline. Similarly, in urban areas with high population density, lorry traffic (overlapping with other traffic) causes serious noise and air population problems, in particular in the form of ozone peaks.

In a British context, a good example is the motorway network in the South-east or the M5 and M6 running through the high density populated Midlands, particularly those motorways running through Birmingham.

The EC recognises that the road freight sector provides an indispensable service to the efficient functioning of the European internal market. However, the various challenges provide a framework for evaluating the external costs imposed by the road freight sector, and the actual costs for the European Community as a whole.

Regulatory framework

The road network in Europe is considered as vital arteries for the movement of freight and people, and which increasingly presents huge safety and environmental challenges – for example, 40,000 people are killed and more than 1.7 million injured each year on Europe’s roads. To remedy the situation the EC is determined to make the road freight sector more professional, accountable and operate to common standards. A number of regulatory measures include:

  • The introduction of the Working Time Directive (WTD), which took effect on March 23, 2005, limits the hours of drivers to 48 hours per week instead of 55 hours and puts up the industry’s costs.
  • The introduction of digital tachographs for lorries, which records driving time and breaks (for rests, loading and unloading and mechanical work) to ensure common standards and a system for harmonised checks.
  • Access to the industry to ensure drivers and operators in each member state are equal on compliance with the criteria of driver training, good repute, financial capacity, and professional competence. This ensures that in terms of safety and quality of professional and commercial service rendered is similar across the EU.


The right to freedom of movement in the transport of goods is fully established throughout the EU, without any discrimination as to the nationality or place of establishment. Since 1994 an important step forward has been the opening up of the freight market through road cabotage.

This measure has been implemented through a careful system of increasing annual quotas in the form of cabotage licences granted to companies in the member states for each transport operation concerned.

However, there are several issues. Firstly, since 1998 the formula has been free of all restrictions. A transport operator recognised by a member state may not only carry goods to or from any EU country, but also within the border of these countries. For example, a German road freight company has the right to offer its services for operations between Paris and Lyon or Rome and Milan, provided that these operations are not performed on regularly.

Secondly, for the new member states the application of the right of cabotage is still subject to transitional periods, except for Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta. There will be a transitional period between three and five years for Poland, Hungary and between two and five years for other countries.

Thirdly, in the road freight sector this liberalisation has led to concern about adverse effects in terms of worsening social conditions and the rules governing safety and the environment. Under the annually increased quota system, cabotage has not seriously disrupted national markets (licences have remained underused).

Finally, the economic interest of this formula has been perceived in particular by the most serious and reliable companies guaranteeing quality of service and compliance with market regulations.

The future

There are still distortions in the internal market that the EU needs to address. For example, increasingly throughout member states measures are being introduced to restrict the movement of heavy freight trucks on certain roads, especially during weekends or the start of the holiday season.

There are still issues over tolls, vehicle tax, excise duty and need for greater transparency. It is the national authorities in each member state that are responsible for taking decisions to ensure optimum management of national and local traffic flows. But the fact that there are so many national authorities, and that there is no harmonisation between them has a markedly negative impact on international freight traffic within the EU.

Furthermore, the maximum lorry sizes throughout the member states still differ, and this factor can distort the market. For example, there are moves to introduce onto British roads super lorries (known as a B Double), which are twice the size and weight of existing lorries permitted on the road network.

Such lorries would be 110ft long and weigh up to 84 tonnes, but would only be permitted on large A roads and the motorways in Britain. The argument is advanced that such super lorries would cut road freight costs, reduce the number of lorries on the roads and benefit the environment. Super lorries are in use on roads in the Netherlands and in Scandinavia. It is unlikely they will become common on British roads for many years yet.

Finally, the principle of fair pricing in the road sector, which began being implemented with the adoption of the Eurovignette Directive is an essential component of an overall long term European transport policy. This meets several requirements, such as better functioning of the internal market, taking account of real costs in view of the need for sustainable development and fair competition among transport operators.

Frank Worsford works in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster.