Winning back business from road? The potential for rail freight in Ireland


Professor Eugene O’Brien and Dr Aoife Ahern examine the possibility for rail freight in Ireland.


In an era of increasing fuel costs and greater concern for the environmental implications of transport, it is not possible to discuss freight transport without reference to energy, fuel consumption and climate change. Within the European Union, most freight is transported by road and is therefore powered by fossil fuels, which are rapidly becoming more expensive. The exception, for countries whose electricity is not reliant on carbon intensive fuels, is rail. In much of Europe, for example, trains are electrified and in some cases at least, this electricity is generated by nuclear power. It can reasonably be assumed that the future will see much of our general power requirements coming from non-carbon intensive sources, and, as a result rail has the potential to transport freight without contributing to climate change.

Freight transportation in Ireland

However, Ireland is a special case. Our rail infrastructure, with the exception of a couple of commuter lines, is not electrified and does not seem likely to be, in the short or medium term. Furthermore, our national power system is heavily reliant on fossil fuels so that, even if the trains were electrified, they would still be using fossil fuels. The most optimistic future for Irish freight transport is therefore an early emergence of the next generation of biofuels. Biodiesel is already in use in countries such as Brazil for example. However, the next generation will need to be much more efficient in the land area required per kilowatt, if it is to be used widely without causing a worldwide food shortage. Of course, an increase in the use of biofuels would mean that road and rail would be competing directly with one another. While rail should be more fuel efficient per tonne of freight carried, it may not be able to compete with road for other reasons.

Rail Freight in the U.S. and Europe

In the United States, 43 percent of freight is carried by rail (2007); in the European Union, the figure is just 11 percent (EU 2010). In Ireland, the Freight Transport Report for Ireland (2008) found that by 2005, 80 percent of freight tonnes were carried by road while freight tonnage carried by rail had declined significantly. In Northern Ireland the above report found that, since 2003, no freight has been carried by rail. The reason for the success of rail freight in the U.S. is that it is cheap and runs on a network where there is little competition with passenger transport. In addition to this, the distances in the U.S. are long enough and the freight volumes high enough to make rail viable. Passenger rail in Europe, on the other hand, is more than ten times that of the U.S. and as passengers require a high-speed reliable service, rail travel here tends to be expensive. This makes it less suitable for freight transportation. The figures support this; rail freight in tonne kilometres in Europe has only grown by 15 percent between 1995 and 2008. In the same period, road freight grew by a dramatic 46 percent.

Rail freight should work but rail tends to be a public service industry and, in most countries, tends to be expensive and inflexible. In Ireland for example, rail freight has declined over the past few years and it is difficult to envisage how it can win back business from road which offers greater flexibility. A fundamental problem is that most products start their journeys in a truck and end their journeys in a truck. Transfers between modes of transport tend to be expensive and logistically complex and this militates against the use of rail except for longer journeys. Ireland is a small island, probably too small to justify two mode transfers in most cases. Distances in Ireland are short, and volumes of freight are relatively low, which negates against the use of rail freight rather than road freight. Significant investment during the Celtic Tiger years in inter-urban road infrastructure also means that inter-urban trips by road are much quicker than by rail in a lot of cases, again leading to a preference for road over rail for freight.

European Modular System (EMS)

There are moves in many continental countries towards the European Modular System (EMS) with truck lengths increasing from the current 15.5m to 25.5m. This allows a second trailer to be included, approximately doubling the freight that can be carried by a single driver. There is strong resistance to EMS from the rail lobby as it brings down the cost of road transport making it more difficult for rail to compete. However, as roads become ever more congested, larger trucks are a good interim solution, delivering more freight with less road space, less cost and a reduced energy requirement.

The future

So, what will freight transportation look like in the long term? Increasing fuel prices, and the introduction of road pricing, carbon taxes and carbon trading will put pressure on those in the freight industry to find more environmentally sustainable ways of transporting goods. Adaptive cruise control systems are becoming better all the time. We may well see self-driving trucks in the future that are electronically ‘towed’, linked to a long convoy, travelling within metres, perhaps centimetres, of each other. These may be in dedicated freight lanes or in dedicated carriageways. When they reach the end of the inter-urban part of their journey, control may be returned to drivers who will complete the journey manually. Such convoys could be powered by overhead electricity and would, in many respects, have much in common with the trains of today. But freight transport would be less expensive and less demanding of labour, land and non-renewable energy. Whatever the case may be, it seems unlikely that rail freight will play a major part in Ireland’s future but that, of course, remains to be seen.


EU Energy and Transport in Figures. Publications office of the European Union. 2010.

Freight Transport Report for the Island of Ireland.InterTradeIreland, 2008.


This article is available in page 6 of Public Affairs Ireland Journal March/April 2012 Issue 83 (available in :