Web conference: “Making rail transport attractive in the EU and globally – Lessons for COP26” (29 October 2021)

Manuela Kropp, Project Manager, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels

Conference report

A web conference organised by the left group in the European Parliament THE LEFT and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brusssels

Here you find the video recording in English: https://youtu.be/vsy3toU4U8k

Transport is the only sector whose greenhouse gas emissions have risen unchecked in recent years. Worldwide, around 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions stem from the transport sector, largely from fuel combustion by cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes. Rail accounts for just 0.4 percent of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions. It is electrically powered in many places, and is the only mode of transport that has managed to reduce its CO2 emissions since 1990. At the start of this year, the EU proclaimed 2021 the European Year of Rail in a bid to promote the switch from road and air to rail-based transport.

However, rail faces stiff – and above all cheap – competition. Wage dumping and working conditions mean that transporting freight by road is often cheaper and is frequently the preferred option. Korea has made good progress in this area by rolling out “safe rates”. Meanwhile, the EU adopted its Mobility Package a year ago in an attempt to improve working conditions in heavy road haulage, but there are still shortcomings in its actual implementation.

This event was a follow-up to the first conference on 24 February 2021 entitled “Putting cross-border rail traffic on the right track”.

The panellists were: Cornelia Ernst (member of the left-wing group THE LEFT in the European Parliament), Herwig Schuster (Greenpeace Europe), Cristina Tilling (European Transport Workers’ Federation), Wol-San Liem (International Transport Workers’ Federation) and Kateřina Konečná (member of THE LEFT group in the European Parliament, Czech Republic).

Cornelia Ernst (THE LEFT) noted in her keynote speech that the first conference on 24 February 2021 had already highlighted how massive neglect of rail infrastructure for decades, both at border points between EU Member States and within Member States, meant that travellers by train were sometimes forced to make incredible detours to reach their destination. So it was no wonder that road haulage was cheaper and the preferred option. However, what was needed was not just an expansion of rail infrastructure within the EU and between the EU and third countries but also, course, a just transition for workers in the road freight transport sector.

Herwig Schuster (Greenpeace Europe) referred to the transport campaign launched by Greenpeace some time ago at EU level – transport being a real headache in many Member States. There needed to be both a reduction in the overall volume of traffic and a shift in the modal split towards rail and inland waterways. He referenced the Greenpeace study A radical transformation of mobility in Europe: Exploring the decarbonisation of the transport sector by 2040, which showed clearly how the EU’s transport sector needed to be decarbonised by 2040. On the one hand, there would have to be efficiency improvements in the transport sector and a switch to e-mobility (i.e. electrified rail), in both passenger and freight transport. On the other hand, systemic change was also required, in other words: reducing traffic volumes, switching to environmentally friendly modes of transport, and banning vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Agrofuels were not a viable alternative here, and synthetic fuels were only an option for aviation, and even then only for long-haul flights. By 2040, he said, the distribution of freight traffic would need to be at least 41% truck, 36% rail and 22% inland waterways, compared with 70%, 15% and 14% respectively in 2015. This would also mean a reduction in the number of trucks in the EU, from 6 million at present to between 3 and 4 million. It was too early to draw any real conclusions about the European Year of Rail because the European Commission would not be presenting an action plan until December 2021. Greenpeace hoped that this plan would boost cooperation between European rail companies.

Herwig Schuster went on to stress the importance of investing in and upgrading existing routes as well, as this could be done much faster than building new rail infrastructure (especially in Eastern Europe). Of course, there also needed to be fair and transparent pricing between the various modes of transport, with the introduction of a kerosene tax and a reduction in railway tolls. Dumping in road freight transport also had to be ended: in Austria, for example, many trucks were driving “illegally”, with some vehicles not meeting the technical standards and drivers exceeding statutory drive times. Action from national governments was needed to tackle this. With the withdrawal from planned new fossil-fuel projects on the agenda, COP26 was the most important climate conference since Paris in 2015, he said. This would inevitably have an impact on fossil fuels in the transport sector and hopefully lead to faster electrification.

Cristina Tilling (European Transport Workers’ Federation) said that synergies between road and rail transport should be exploited and that this required an integrated discussion, also involving trade unions. The situation in road freight transport was so dire because this means of transport was being kept artificially cheap. What we needed, she said, was fewer workers in the sector but much better working conditions. Long-distance haulage was facing problems such as the near impossibility of maintaining a work-life balance, and the pandemic had placed workers under even more pressure. A shortage of drivers was now becoming apparent, the attractiveness of the profession being further undermined by the need to be on the road for weeks on end and the deplorable conditions in lorry parks. A work-life balance was also needed in cross-border rail transport, with shorter absences from home. Another problem affecting both cross-border rail and road transport was that in many cases working hours were not recorded correctly, and so workers were not being paid the wages to which they were entitled. In cross-border rail, there was simply a lack of suitable tools for correctly recording these hours, whereas this was at least technically possible for cross-border road haulage. Furthermore, the minimum requirements for education and training needed to be harmonised for cross-border transport in the EU: while there were clear minimum requirements for road transport, this was not yet the case for rail.

Wol-San Liem (International Transport Workers’ Federation, or ITF) explained that in Korea “safe rates” had been introduced for road freight transport two years ago. The ITF was working to have a similar model implemented everywhere in order to improve working conditions, safeguard workers’ rights and enhance road safety, because ultimately, the pressure on haulage companies was being passed on to truck drivers, resulting in fatigue, overloading of trucks and more road accidents, among other consequences.

The “safe rates” principles had been established at International Labour Organization (ILO) level in 2019, but unfortunately had not yet come into force. These principles were based on one rate for one journey, taking into account various factors such as travel time. In addition, a balance needed to be found between cross-border drivers and those driving within national borders. Approaches varied considerably around the globe. In the United States, for example, there were clear liability rules for employers. In France, employers had a legally enshrined duty of care. In Korea, the safe rates had already led to fewer speeding violations and less overloading of trucks, meaning that roads were safer. In conclusion, Wol-San Liem pointed out that a change in the industrial structure of our societies was also needed in order to combat social dumping and avoid unnecessary journeys. The costs of a just transition for road freight transport workers should also be taken into account in the discussion on the required transition to green transport, she said.

Kateřina Konečná (THE LEFT) began by noting how difficult it was to enforce good working conditions for those employed in the transport sector. This made the regulatory work of legislators in this area all the more necessary. The Mobility Package, which was designed to improve EU-wide working conditions in heavy road haulage, regulated the following key areas: drive times, rest periods, cabotage, use of smart tachographs, and issues surrounding the posting of workers.

During negotiations on this European legislative package, attempts had been made, especially by Eastern European Member States, to water down some regulations or to exclude them entirely. The requirement for drivers to return home every few weeks was particularly controversial, as according to some Eastern European Member States this would sound the death knell for road freight transport. In other words, the governments concerned had no problem with drivers spending 50 weeks a year on the road without being able to return home. They also did not see it as a problem if drivers had to drive for two straight days just to reach their place of work and were then required to start work immediately, without any break or rest periods. Moreover, even the designated rest periods were often not respected, with drivers drafted in to load up the vehicles.

With road freight traffic making up a significant share of gross domestic product in some Eastern European Member States (16% in Bulgaria, for example), even ambassadors had got involved in the Mobility Package negotiations. Moreover, even the newly elected European Commissioner for Transport had questioned some parts of the Mobility Package and had commissioned a study to show that the requirement for drivers to return home regularly led to environmentally harmful empty runs and was therefore incompatible with the European Green Deal. However, according to Kateřina Konečná, this was not a valid argument as, given the economic pressures they faced, the hauliers themselves would take steps to avoid empty runs.

In conclusion, she said that the Mobility Package had brought about many improvements for road freight transport: even light commercial vehicles now had to be equipped with tamper-proof smart tachographs; rest periods had to be taken outside the cab and paid for by the employer; drivers were entitled to return home every few weeks; all travel documents had to be stored in a database to prevent forgery; and drivers had to go back to the company’s operational centre every eight weeks. Of course, she added, the success of the Mobility Package would depend on its actual implementation and on monitoring and control by Member States.

Czech versionPDF file