European Rail Freight Corridors going Carbon Neutral (LowCarb RFC)

The LowCarb-RFC study is motivated by a number of research projects, all of which are missing to touch the core of the problem of transport mode shift to rail: (1) What do these enormous changes really mean for regions and their transport systems and (2) Whether and how can we reform current institutions to undertake the necessary action. The study investigates these issues for two European rail freight corridors and the German State of North-Rhine-Westphalia using three different transport and sustainability models, reviews of institutional reform processes inside and outside transport, and by running a stakeholder participation platform for transport companies, shippers, forwarding industries and policy. The study is co-funded by the Mercator Foundation in co-operation with the European Climate Foundation from 2015 to 2018.

The LowCarb-RFC study is motivated by a number of research projects funded by the European Commission. All of these studies investigate ambitious scenarios for shifting transport demand from road to rail for better quality of life, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction. However, all of these studies remain with rather general recommendations and solutions without really touching the core of the problem: (1) What do these enormous changes really mean for regions and their transport systems and (2) Whether and how can we reform current institutions to undertake the necessary action. This study seeks to answer both of the questions at the example of major European port hinterland flows crossing the German state of Northrhine-Westphalia (NRW).

To approach the fundamental questions on how to reform the transport sector towards more sustainability, and thus to comply with the ambitious mode shift, climate and safety targets set by the European Commission’s 2011 Transport White Paper, the LowCarb-RFC study applies the following working steps and methodologies.

WP1 seeks for gathering and analysing the current state of research on future scenarios for visions in the rail freight sector on methods to assess and quantify these scenarios and on existing stakeholder discussion and dissemination platforms for rail freight solutions.

WP2 develops a baseline scenario which will most likely become real in case policy, technology and markets develop without major surprises. It will specify the various modelling tools which are used to assess transport market developments: the ASTRA system dynamics model run by Fraunhofer ISI and M-Five, the Logistics Chain Model by the University of Antwerp, the local logistics assessment method by Fraunhofer IML and other impact assessment methods required throughout the project.

WP3 develops the target vision and scenario for an international European freight market largely based on rail. This involves a complete technical and organisational modernisation of the rail sector, as well as a detailed concept for a supporting policy environment by 2050. The WP concludes with an environmental impact assessment.

WP4 delves into the very details how the Pro Rail Scenario can be realised by focussing on the major barriers towards rail and institutional changes. Short case studies of transition processes in other sectors are conducted, and in-depth consultations with railways, logistics companies, industries and policy bodies within the Stakeholder Participation Platform are performed to identify feasible transition pathways.

WP5 goes into an alternative scenario which investigates whether the sustainability targets are achievable despite a marginalisation of the rail freight sector. In this scenario, technical and organisational improvements of road transport, such as autonomous driving, larger vehicles, electrification or alternative fuels will be allowed to a high extent.

This final scientific step shall bundle the results of the Pro Rail Scenario and the Pro Road case and look at their implications particularly for the logistics infrastructure and markets in Northrhine-Westphalia (NRW). It explores investment and de-investment needs, environmental effects and social impacts in the road haulage, railway and inland navigation sector.

Stakeholder Participation Platform. This work package supports all other activities in the project by enabling continuous discussions with relevant stakeholders from railways and goods forwarding industry. A bi-directional flow of inputs questions, suggestions and comments together with confidential discussions in small groups shall ensure that both, science and practice, are benefiting from an open and honest exchange of relevant thoughts and facts. The Stakeholder Participation Platform is run by project partner Transport and Environment (T&E).


The LowCarb-RFC research project consists of three thematic streams. Out of these a total of nine working papers and three summary reports are issued.

Overview and Summary Reports

Abstract: Improved competitiveness of the railways requires solving the double challenge of earlier and more extensive liberalisation of road haulage and the dominant role of the incumbents in rail freight. Rail freight growth requires the reform of complex internal structures, long decision pathways and overcast expectations towards rail. This requires changes in the organisation and institutional setting of rail freight together with infrastructure expansion, digitalisation and modernisation. We find that current institutional design and adaptation efforts of incumbents, while introducing major change, remain distant from their final customers. Deeper institutional reform processes, as planned for DB Cargo, would require more political pressure in order to materialise.In the longer term new operators could improve rail’s competitiveness with respect to road. Success factors include equivalent working conditions, across modes, standardisation of rail systems and innovation support. A survey of business models in other sectors finds common developments including predictive logistics, use- and results-oriented product service systems, horizontal cooperation and bundling. These may well complement traditional company strategies.

Abstract: This second summary report of the study LowCarb-RFC presents extreme scenarios for cost cuts in rail freight and for the electrification of road haulage for two European freight corridors by 2050. The scenarios Pro Rail for competitive freight railways and Pro Road for greenhouse gas neutral road transports aim at quantifying the potential contributions of these two respective directions of transport and climate policy to climate protection and sustainability. Pro Rail drafts a future, in which rail transport costs decline by 66 per cent through regulatory frameworks, entrepreneurial measures and the consequent application of digitalisation and automation. At the same time, road haulage costs increase by 25 per cent through taxes, charges and regulation. In contrast, Pro Road describes a future in which road transport operates carbon neutral through overhead wires, batteries and fuel cells. The market share of the railway triples in the Pro Rail scenario against the reference case in the year 2050. This is partly at the expense of trucks, but also at the expense of inland shipping. Along the Rhine-Alpine-Corridor 2050, GHG emissions decline from 60 Mt to 35 Mt CO2-equivalents in the Pro Rail scenario and to 22 Mt in the Pro Road scenario. Through the combination of both measures, a further reduction to 16 Mt would be feasible. As both of these extreme scenarios are unlikely to be realised, climate policy needs to exploit the full emission reduction potentials in all modes.

Abstract: This third and final summary report of the study LowCarb-RFC turns the attention on low carbon emission scenarios from the European perspective to the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). For NRW we developed and assessed specific rail modal shift and road electrification scenarios towards 2050. To achieve profound cuts in GHG emissions we find that planning periods need significant shortening, and system transition has to start immediately. In particular, new technologies to boost rail capacity are needed as shifting all rail freight to electric trucks would require inconceivable road network expansions. Total investment costs between 2015 and 2050 range between 15 billion euros for a lower bound rail investment case to 19 billion euros for motorway electrification and expansion. None of these costs create major disruptions to the NRW economy or labour market and thus do not constitute an excuse for not acting. The NRW case study finds lower GHG reduction potentials, −16 per cent, than the European corridors studies (−28 to −43 per cent) for the railway expansion and modal shift scenarios. For road electrification all cases find a
potential of some −60 per cent. Interestingly, also for GHG mitigation costs NRW values are lower in the Pro Rail case (140 euros per ton CO2-eq.) than in the corridor studies (around 600 euros per ton CO2-eq.). Environmental and safety external costs suggest that GHG mitigation shall be prioritised. For profound and fast decarbonisation,
all options are needed, including CO2-efficient shipping.

Thematic stream 2: Scenarios and Results for European Corridors


01.09.2015 - 31.08.2018


  • Stiftung Mercator GmbH


  • Fraunhofer IML

  • INFRAS AG, Schweiz

  • M-Five

  • T&E Transport & Environment

  • Universität Antwerpen