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Published: 19 March 2012      

Increased rail freight "requires cities to change"

Soenke Behrends in Gothenburg
Intermodal rail terminals must be relocated from city centres to urban peripheries, argues a doctoral thesis at Chalmers University in Gothenburg

The thesis, written by Sönke Behrends, investigates how urban and long-distance freight impact one another.

When switching to a sustainable transport system, one key factor involves shifting more freight transport from road to rail. This change, however, can result in increased environmental problems in the local urban environment, primarily due to transhipment from train to truck that must almost always take place in order to transport the freight "the last mile."

For historical reasons, intermodal freight terminals are generally located in close vicinity to the passenger train station. An increased level of rail freight leads to more local air pollution, noise and congestion at these central locations. If, on the other hand, freight is transported by road the entire distance, the negative effects inside cities may diminish, for instance because many trucks do not need to enter the urban core.

So the question is: how can this dilemma of global sustainability versus local sustainability be resolved? Sönke Behrends investigated the issue in his thesis at Chalmers University of Technology.

"Local politicians and authorities must take rail freight more into account when planning cities; in part to create a better city for residents, and in part to increase the competitiveness of rail, which is currently limited by freight terminals that are difficult to access and that have a low degree of efficiency during transhipment to lorry," says Behrends.

In practice, this means that freight terminals must be moved to urban peripheries. These areas offer freight terminals the space and infrastructure needed to produce effective transhipment, and at the same time the impact on the local environment would be reduced and moved to a location where fewer people are affected.

The same applies to most major European cities. Examples include Stockholm, Gothenburg and Hannover. Cities such as Gothenburg and Hannover already have long-term plans to move their freight terminal out of the urban core. However, there are generally several obstacles to implementing such a move – for example, the cost of new infrastructure and local protests at the planned location of the new terminal.

In addition to relocating freight terminals, several other things also need to be done to achieve socially acceptable urban environments that also offer effective freight transports. Behrends says that the main problem is related to a lack of resources and knowledge on the part of local decision-makers.

"Urban planners often lack the required logistics expertise and holistic view," he says. "They perceive the economic interests as separate from the social and environmental interests, and they lack a long-term strategy for balancing the different interests."

As part of his thesis, Behrends developed a framework to help urban planners make decisions that lead to sustainable transport systems. The framework aims to clarify the complex web of societal interests that are impacted by local decisions.

It also illustrates the advantages that rail-adapted planning can offer a city. This might encourage cities to include rail freight in their strategies for achieving sustainable development, rather than forcing them to do it.

"In addition to reducing the environmental impact and congestion, rail-adapted urban planning can improve a city's accessibility to the national and European transport system," says Behrends. "This is important for the city's economic development, since accessibility to sustainable transport will become increasingly important in the future."

WorldCargo News comments: There are numerous examples of proposals for rnew ail/road interchange "hub" terminals in "urban peripheries" being turned down because of local truck traffic and road congestion impacts, noise, lighting, destruction of "green belt," "leafy suburb NIMBYism," etc.

"Steel wheel" transfers to smaller ("spoke") rail terminals, rather than rubber tyre transfers, might help, but:

  • there is no economic model for short haul intermodal trains (certainly not lo-lo).
  • there are no suitable paths on congested urban networks and probably also an inadequate structure gauge.
  • there are now too few (or even any) rail freight reception facilities left in the congested and densely (over) populated urban core.


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