Congestion on EU roads was nearing braking point until the financial crisis put a strong halt to volume growth. As economies pick up so will traffic numbers but in the wake of the worst financial crisis witnessed for decades government budgets are over-stretched, putting infrastructure investment in jeopardy.

The answer that some EU governments may turn to is increasing the number of public private partnerships to inject a much-needed funding boost. In the past, however, these have been fraught with difficulties as opposing interests of the parties clash time and again over investment, operation and commercialisation of tomorrow’s transport structure.

In June, the European Commission (EC) published the communication A Sustainable Future for Transport: Towards an Integrated, Technology-Led and User-Friendly Transport System, with the aim of launching a public debate on the future direction of the European transport policy (ETP) until 2012.

As a response, the International Road Transport Union (IRU) has published its own white paper calling for a genuine public-private partnership, saying it is the most critical aspect of an ETP that will meet the mobility needs of European citizens.’s Natalie Coomber caught up with IRU general delegate to the EU Michael Nielsen to find out where he thinks the EC is going wrong and why the answer lies in true partnership between the public and private

“What we have tried to do is generate ideas where we think the road industry could do better, for example, encouraging drivers to be more environmentally friendly.”

NC: What has characterised the EC’s approach to public-private partnerships to date?

MN: For many years we have been subject to regulation and not really subject to co-operation. The EC has regulated the way forward, come up with ideas without consulting anybody and then drafted a proposal.

When there are issues, the public authorities should approach the private sector and discuss what the best way forward is and make use of the industry-owned initiatives that are going on. [We want to] enter into a true public and private partnership where we discuss what issues are on the table and try to find common solutions.

NC: Do you think strict regulation has hampered innovation in the private sector and deterred companies from getting involved?

MN: I don’t think very strict regulation, without proper consultation, encourages innovation. I think it is a way to kill initiative from the industry. What we have tried to do is generate ideas where we think the road industry could do better, for example, encouraging drivers to be more environmentally friendly.

NC: What approach have EU regulators taken to tackle rising traffic volumes on the roads in past years?

MN: One of the major intentions of the regulators over the past years has been forced modal shift from road to rail. That has proven to be quite unsuccessful as rail is not capable of taking on the needs as a replacement transport for road.

Transport growth in the region of between 38% and 58% is expected [in the next few years]. Rail can take away from road just a couple of percent of that figure. There is a lot of money being spent on forced modal shift and we believe that this money could be better spent in starting a dialogue with the industry to try and find innovative measures in order for it to be more effective and sustainable. That is what we are calling on the public authorities to realise.

“We have the responsibility to make people aware that we have become more environmentally friendly and we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint.”

NC: Has funding encouraged innovation in rail instead of the road sector?

MN: Yes, around 85% of EU transport tenders go to rail. I think governments should invest across all modes so that they are fully utilised. The interaction between the different modes should also be well functioning because all modes of transport are needed to meet demand.

NC: Now the EC has opened the debate, do you think changes will be made to this approach?

MN: It is the right time to see a change happen but I am slight skeptical. The recent communication the EC sent out contains all the right words but so did the 2006 white paper when a policy of forced modal shift was followed.

Roads move 80% of all EU goods and 70% of the total value of goods – there is no other transport that can take this volume. It puzzles me that the European Commission is still offering programmes where the majority of funds go to rail.

NC: Is it because pushing freight onto rail is a policy winner and is seen as more environmentally friendly?

MN: Yes, I think so. If you ask ten people on the street which is more environmentally friendly they will tell you rail. I think in the road sector we have the responsibility to make people aware that we have become more environmentally friendly and we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint.

We have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 36% in the past 20 years and we are desperate to reduce it more. It will result in reducing fuel consumption and more bottom line for the operators.

Road transport can’t be looked at as one entity because it is made up of so many elements. Bus travel is more environmentally friendly per mile than rail, for example. We have a role to explain these things and we will run a campaign to make sure this message gets out.

NC: Do you see public-private partnerships across the transport sectors in the future?

MN: There are definitely some road operators that could become rail operators and rail operators that could become road operators. In Germany, state rail operators are also the biggest road operators and in France the biggest road operator is SNCF, it is one of the most efficient ways of running [transport systems] today.

But in the rail sector there are problems with liberalisation and cross-border corporations – things we think they should solve very fast. We often talk to the railways and try to figure out how to improve the interaction between road and rail.