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EU failing on river transport
One freight vessel on a river could replace 280 lorries on the roads, but Europe's rivers and canals are mostly free of cargo ships.
Eighty years ago, Europe’s rivers and canals were bustling with activity, with boats transporting passengers and goods between cities. Today, many of those inland waterways sit empty, appreciated more for their aesthetic value than their commercial potential.
Less maritime traffic on Europe’s rivers may seem like an environmental benefit, but it has caused environmental damage. Freight traffic on inland waterways has been replaced by lorries and cargo planes, both of which are far more polluting than maritime transport. The European Commission identified the underuse of these waterways as a problem as far back as 2001, and undertaken a number of initiatives to increase traffic, particularly on the Danube. Such routes have been prioritised in the trans-European transport network (TEN-T), a list of transport projects eligible for EU funding.
However, a report published by the European Court of Auditors today (3 March) concludes that, despite 15 years of effort, the EU has failed to increase the use of its inland waterways in any meaningful way. It says that projects co-funded by the EU have not been implemented effectively, and member states have “paid little attention to inland waterways”.
“More than a decade after the EU declared it a priority, development of this mode of transport lags behind road and rail,” said Iliana Ivanova, the author of the report. “A single cargo vessel on a river can replace hundreds of trucks on the road and therefore reduce congestion, pollution and accidents in the whole EU.”
The biggest hurdle to overcome has been the elimination of bottlenecks that make rivers and canals difficult or impossible to pass. These obstacles, such as bridges that are not high enough, inefficient locks and silting, have been put up by member states that did not see a role for shipping on rivers and canals. Member states have also not made efforts to widen stretches of river that are too narrow for cargo ships. The cost for eliminating all the bottlenecks in the TEN-T network far exceeds the available funding from the EU budget, the auditors concluded. More funding from national or private sources is needed.
Another significant problem is a lack of co-operation between member states. The best use of inland waterways is for rivers and canals that do not cross borders, such as the canal systems in Belgium and the Netherlands, the Seine in France, and the Göta in Sweden. But the auditors found that there is no coherent strategy between member states connected by main water corridors, such as the Rhine or the Danube. Given its potential, the underuse of the Danube, which flows through ten countries and four national capitals, is particularly egregious. By contrast, the Rhine is the most-used inland waterway, with around 80% of the EU’s overall inland waterway freight passing through it.
External costs for inland waterway vessels, which include carbon emissions, air pollutants, noise and accidents, is 7.5 times less than for road freight and three times less than for rail freight. One convoy on a canal or river can replace 280 lorries on the road. Most European industrial centres can be reached by inland navigation.
The Commission disputes the characterisation of its policies as a failure. In a written response to the report, the Commission noted that the shift of traffic from road to inland waterways is “not under the full control of the Commission”. It also points out that between 2006 and 2012, the modal share of inland waterway transport has slightly increased.
The Commission adopted an EU strategy on inland waterways called NAIADES in 2006. It also says that EU-financed projects during this time “were consistent with the objectives of the respective financing programmes”. It adds that because of the large number of bottlenecks, the first projects are bound to have limited impact because an increase in transport cannot begin until all the bottlenecks are removed.
Violeta Bulc, the European commissioner for transport, may address the report when she delivers an opening speech at conference organised by the European Barge Union in Brussels tomorrow (4 March).
The auditors recommend that the Commission perform a market analysis on the benefits of inland navigation on different rivers in the EU and classify rivers by their potential for developing waterway corridors. They also want to see a strategy agreed with member states with specific objectives to eliminate bottlenecks. The Commission should also require member states along Europe’s main inland waterway corridors to report regularly on maintenance activities and their impact on navigability.
In the end, however, the responsibility for undertaking projects to improve navigable conditions rests with the member states, and so far these projects have been extremely limited. Even those projects that have been undertaken have often been the wrong ones, the auditors say, leaving the most relevant bottlenecks unaddressed. The auditors note that it will take a fundamental change of thinking to change this situation. “The poor progress was mainly due to the fact that member states paid little attention to this mode of transport,” the auditors concluded.
Source : European Voice