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Is road transport of goods reliable?

A statement by Prof. Dr. hab. Wojciech Paprocki, The Institute for Infrastructure, Transport and Mobility, SGH Warsaw School of Economics, Warszawa (PL)

The digital transformation of the European economy is accelerating. Many years ago, high-tech leaders from US and China gained a dominant position in the market for digital services. Europe-based companies continue to dominate the market for physical goods, most of which are produced using analog technologies. These goods are traded between partners within the continent, with remainder being transported via seaports to customers in other regions of the world. Cargo flows on the land route are mainly transported by trucks. More than 75 % of the transport performance is carried out by road. Rail and inland waterways play a complementary role.

For many years, the European Union and the governments of many member states, as well as Switzerland, have sought to limit the role of road haulage in the European transport system. This objective has not been achieved. Shippers created more and more demand, preferring the flexibility of road transport. At the same time, they have avoided using the services of the carriers of the other two modes of transport, disappointed by the instability of their operational processes. In addition, shippers have gained experience that prices of rail and water transportation services are not attractive.

Over the past three decades, European shippers have become accustomed to the fact that road transport services are always available. The increase in the supply of services was strongly influenced by the entry of carriers from Central Europe. Their significant position in international transport services is reflected, for example, in traffic statistics on German highways. Only half of the heavy trucks are registered by a carrier based in Germany. Every fifth vehicle is registered in Poland.

For several years, the phenomenon of decreasing availability of services has been noticeable, the main reason for which is the shortage of drivers on the labor market in most EU member states. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thousands of drivers who started working for carriers in Poland and other EU countries before 2022 have left the labor market. As a result, the shortage of drivers has been exacerbated.

There are several factors that could lead to structural imbalances in the road transport market. In addition to the driver shortage phenomenon described above, there is a risk that private companies from the SME sector will not be able to cope with new challenges: the digitalization of operational processes in logistics chains and the implementation of technological solutions leading to the decarbonization of transport. Of the millions of people (almost exclusively men) who work as drivers, the majority belong to the 40+ generation. This means that only a minority of these professionals was “born with a smartphone in their hand”. Shippers and logistics operators press drivers to use new applications in a perfect way. It faces the social resistance. The training courses for drivers are effective, but they do not cover everyone. There is a growing group of private carriers who do not want to adapt to the new requirements and withdraw from the market. In the SME group, primarily in the micro-enterprise subgroup, there are no capital resources at all to try to join the rolling stock replacement process and start using new drives and new energy carriers.

European shippers, de facto dependent on road transport, underestimate that their strategic suppliers would reduce their human and material potential. Such a scenario for the coming years can be implemented exactly at a time when the governments of Western European countries, including Germany and France, will stimulate the reindustrialization of the economy. The option of increasing cargo by rail or inland waterways cannot be considered realistic, since the infrastructure of these two modes of transportation does not allow to increase the volume and ensure the stability of operations.

There are three ways to reduce this risk.

  • Firstly, it is necessary to quickly and significantly improve the social working conditions of drivers. It is crucial to attract new people to this profession, including women. A change in work organization can be of great importance. For example, if drivers were rotated on the route of cargo transportation, their work cycle would allow them to return home and spend the night there. With the use of digital technologies, it is feasible to plan the disposition of personnel and fleet in appropriate time intervals on selected sections.
  • Secondly, it is possible to expand the offer of intermodal operators. Their offer is quite rich on the north-south axis, but very modest on the east-west axis, e. g. between Poland/Czech Republic/Hungary and France/Spain.
  • Thirdly, the use of larger rolling stock, i.e. one set of tractor, semi-trailer and trailer, can be used more often.

And I think that should be feasible.

This article was published in International Transportation | eCollection 2023