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International Forwarding Association Blog » Railway transport in Europe » Environmental and Climatic Threats to EU Rail Freight Forwarding

Environmental and Climatic Threats to EU Rail Freight Forwarding

Rail freight forwarding in the EU is not immune to the growing environmental and climatic challenges that threaten its operations and efficiency. As our world grapples with unpredictable weather patterns, the sector faces a series of threats, including extreme weather events, temperature fluctuations, infrastructure failures, and environmental degradation. Each of these has the potential to disrupt operations and increase costs, directly impacting European logistics companies.


Extreme Weather Events

One of the most immediate and visible threats to rail operations is extreme weather events. Ranging from severe storms to prolonged heat waves, these events can damage tracks, signalling systems, and other vital components. For instance, heavy rains can cause landslides blocking routes while extreme cold can freeze track switches and make brake systems less responsive. This can lead to safety concerns, potential delays, and disruptions in rail freight forwarding schedules.


Temperature Fluctuations

Temperature fluctuations, both sudden and gradual, can affect rail operations. On the one hand, sudden temperature drops can affect the mechanical performance of trains, leading to breakdowns. On the other, gradual increases in average temperatures can cause tracks to warp or buckle. Forwarders, in turn, might face inconsistent schedules, with the added cost of maintenance and repair becoming an inevitable overhead.


Infrastructure Failures

Rail freight operations are heavily reliant on the robustness and reliability of infrastructure. From bridges aging and becoming unsafe to tunnels suffering collapses or blockages, these failures have the potential to disrupt rail operations, with cascading effects on the entire logistics network.

In 2017, a significant infrastructural failure highlighted these vulnerabilities. The Rastatt Tunnel incident in Germany, due to a tunnel collapse near the Rastatt construction site, caused a significant disruption in the Rhine-Alpine Corridor. This closure persisted for several weeks and caused the rerouting of rail freight. The resulting delays and increased costs significantly affected forwarders, and they had to exert extra effort to identify alternate transport methods and routes.


Environmental Degradation

Environmental degradation, such as deforestation and depletion of wetlands, can leave rail infrastructure vulnerable to damage. Without natural protective barriers, rail lines become more susceptible to flooding, landslides, and storm damage.

For forwarders, degradation translates into a heightened risk of disruptions. Routes may become impassable, which can force costly detours, delay shipments, and even disrupt supply chains. This can lead to increased costs, as forwarders may need to invest in additional infrastructure resilience measures or insurance to mitigate these risks.


Resource Scarcity

Resource scarcity, particularly for essential materials like steel and ballast, is increasingly challenging rail freight forwarding. This is due to a combination of factors, including overuse of natural resources, environmental policies that limit extraction, and a global demand that often surpasses the sustainable supply. These issues are compounded by supply chain disruptions in the industries that produce critical materials. Behind these disruptions are factors like mining restrictions, production bottlenecks, and competition for raw materials.

Such material shortages lead to delays in maintenance and derail infrastructure projects, which in turn throw rail freight schedules off course. This unpredictability compels forwarders to turn to alternative and often more expensive forms of transportation.