Carmakers and logistics providers are doing their best to cope with the sixth straight year of decline in European sales by adjusting transport networks to find efficiency savings and to better serve growing markets abroad. However, their efforts in finding more efficient multimodal solutions could be better supported by changes to existing EU legislation according to speakers at last week’s Automotive Logistics Europe conference in Bonn, Germany.

Weights and dimensions regulation on the roads and bottlenecks on both road and rail are just two of the main concerns.

The issue of weights and measures legislation on car hauliers in Europe is well documented. Under current EU haulage regulations trucks must conform to a maximum length of 18.75 metres with a 40 tonne weight limit to move between countries. Vehicles longer or heavier than this need to be decoupled at borders and the modules driven across individually. With vehicle overhangs often technically exceeding the maximum length, any further enforcement would mean a significant impact on transit times and an increase in the risk to quality.

According to Tom Antonissen, EU Affairs manager at the Association of European Vehicle Logistics (ECG), addressing this is a priority.

There is also a financing gap for road infrastructure at a time when member states don’t have any sufficient capital to invest and the banks are not lending. Discussions have opened again on road charges for freight, which Antonissen said the ECG was also following closely.

As a mode, road haulage is the guinea pig for the European Commission’s drive to internalisation of the external costs of transport.

“This means that, next to the costs you think you have, such as fuel and labour, there are other costs, including air pollution, noise, CO2 and congestion,” explained Antonissen. “So the whole legislative aim is to put all this into a cost model and make road transport more expensive because it pays for all these costs.”

The ECG’s response is that road infrastructure should be funded and maintained by public authorities arguing that it is a general service to a country and citizens that a government should maintain its roads. Antonissen said the ECG was pressing for the clearance of bottlenecks and the construction of missing links, including intermodal connections, as well as the implementation of intelligent transport systems. “There is a lot of technology to make traffic flow more smoothly but someone needs to invest in it, usually the public authority,” he said.

Bottlenecks are also a problem at the ports according Dr Maximilian Altmann, owner of rail provider ARS Altmann.

“There is not one important terminal for [vehicle] export in Europe which does not suffer from bottlenecks on rail,” he said. “Without those bottlenecks there would be much higher capacity and a greater potential for more efficient rail transport in terms of cost and quality.”

This is central to the argument on multimodality in Europe. Seat’s finished vehicle distribution manager, Manuel Medina, also pointed out that he didn’t know any dealers with a rail connection or factories with good rail connections to the ports. He also pointed out there was an imbalance on rail trade north and south, particularly as Spain has seen vehicle imports plummet while but exports have been fairly strong.

Elsewhere, Daimler’s manager of worldwide transportation and vehicle distribution, Jan Maes, said the company was intensifying rail movement and reviewing its ports strategy to help meet its ambitious volume growth plans and new model launch programme with the right transport modes.

Logistics provider Gefco has already introduced several long distance trains between France and Russia, as well as from China to Russia, which the company expects to increase under its ownership by Russian Railways. “In future, given environmental considerations and more polluter-pays taxes, I think that long distance transport by road will have to stop,” said Antoine Redier, the company’s 4PL director. “We’re not there yet, because we don’t have the rail capacity.”

Antonissen said that in 2010 a regulation was proposed to put in place a network across the EU devoted to freight that required cooperation between member states on getting more capacity for freight and establishing a priority over passenger transport, something that could address the bottleneck problem. “But freight doesn't vote, passengers do, so getting a priority for freight is tricky,” he said, adding that member states were working on it but there was not much to show yet in reality.

Greater interoperability on traction is needed between member states but they are resistant to EU approval on the standard, preferring to regulate locomotive and wagon standards themselves.

Read the full report from Automotive Logistics Europe 2013 here