Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Italy is investing in rail freight

May 14 2024

SPECIAL FEATURE ITALY 4/5. Italy remains well below European targets in terms of the modal share of rail freight, but investments are underway.

According to the latest annual report published by FerMerci, the association of Italian rail logistics professionals, Italy recorded in 2023 a total volume of 51.7 million train-kilometres, down 4% compared to the previous year. Traffic expressed in tonne-km was also down by 0.4% to 23.3 billion. The share of rail freight in Italy stands at around 12%, compared to an average of around 17% in Europe as a whole, and therefore remains far from the ambitious target set by the European Union (EU). The sustainable and smart mobility strategy published by the European Commission in December 2020 provides for a 50% increase in rail freight transport by 2030 and a doubling by 2050.

In 2023, the significant drop in traffic was influenced by specific factors. Unforeseeable events include the complete interruption of the line to Fréjus in France due to a landslide, the partial closure of the Gotthard tunnel to Switzerland and the impact of flooding, which mainly affected the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. In addition, there are scheduled interruptions, in order to facilitate the work envisaged by the Italian National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). As a result, the use of some rail lines has been reduced to around 50% of 2023's capacity.

Despite an overall positive trend in terms of traffic over the past 15 years, in the light of more recent developments the association of rail logistics professionals does not hide its concerns. "2022 showed signs of a regression, confirmed and accentuated in 2023, with worrying prospects for 2024," says FerMerci.

Traffic Characteristics


* Estimates – Sources: Eurostat and FerMerci

From 2000 to 2010, the rail freight market collapsed, dropping to 17.8 billion tonne-km in 2009. But activity then picked up again, going over the 20 billion tkm mark again in 2014. Since then, it has never dropped below this threshold. "Since 2010, there has been a reversal of trend with a significant increase in rail freight traffic. This sector has recently shown remarkable resilience in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic (24.3 billion tonne-km in 2021, up 17% compared to 2020) and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (24.3 billion tonne-km in 2022, up 0.3% compared to 2021), with annual average values between 2010 and 2023 of 21.4 billion tonne-km and 47.1 million train-km,” explains FerMerci.

Geographically speaking, 70% of 2023's 52 million train-km ran in Northern Italy, the economic heart of the country, 43% of which were in the Northeast. "However, if we take into account the evolution of supply in recent years, we see growth in the southern regions, contrasting with great stability in northern Italy," says FerMerci.

Internationally, Alpine crossings are traffic routes of critical importance. "In 2023, the distribution of rail traffic across Alpine crossings shows a clear predominance of Austria in terms of tonne-kilometres transported (12.2 billion or 54% of total traffic), ahead of Switzerland (29%), Slovenia (11%) and France (6%)," says FerMerci. Between 2018 and 2023, Austria's share increased, as did Slovenia's, which generated a total traffic of 2.5 billion tonne-km. In contrast, France and Switzerland lost ground, with volumes of 6.6 billion tonne-km and 1.4 billion tonne-km respectively.

Ports are also an important focal centre to attract interest. Twenty ports are now integrated into the national rail network, the main ones being Ancona, Genoa, Gioia Tauro, La Spezia, Livorno, Ravenna, Taranto, Trieste and Venice. In terms of rail traffic generated by ports, Trieste leads with 8,617 freight trains in 2023 (-8% compared to 2022), followed by Ravenna (6,981), La Spezia (5,986), Genoa (5,743 freight trains in 2023) and Venice (4,404).

Necessary but costly investments

The Italian rail network today has about 16,800 km of state-owned lines, managed by Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI), a public limited company 100% owned by the Italian Railway Company, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (FS). In addition, there are approximately 3,000 km of secondary lines owned by the regions.  

Like many European countries, Italy suffered from a long period of under-investment in infrastructure. To meet European rail transport standards, the country must speed up network refurbishment work. In May 2022, the RFI group presented an investment plan of more than 190 billion euros spread over ten years, that is to say for the period 2022-2031. This operation is expected to have an impact on the Italian economy and generate an increase in GDP, of between 2% to 3%. Part of this envelope should be financed by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), which will also contribute to the upgrading of road infrastructure. The RFI group will receive a payment of 110 billion to modernise the railway infrastructure and develop the network to reduce the gap between the north and the south of the country. These include creating new lines, improving main routes, modernising signalling, developing the electrification of regional lines, and finally completing the rail corridors of the trans-European transport network and promoting interoperability. Italy is concerned by 4 European corridors: Baltic-Adriatic, Mediterranean, Rhine-Alps and Scandinavia-Mediterranean.

These investments are obviously good news for the rail freight industry. But in the immediate future, the work significantly complicates operations. In its report, FerMerci highlights the negative impact on rail freight transport of the some 4,000 projects launched under the NRRP. The association estimates that 60% of rail lines will experience partial or total closures in 2024 due to works. In 2023, 129 closures were recorded, causing a significant slowdown in rail traffic last year. According to FerMerci's forecasts, the scenario is expected to be even more catastrophic this year, with 207 closures.  

“In the coming years, based on the available data, the number of planned intervention-related downtime days is expected to increase. These data relate only to planned interventions, thus excluding unforeseen maintenance interventions which, based on what happened in 2023, could be even more widespread,” warns FerMerci, which forecasts a peak in 2025. As a result, FerMerci is requesting support measures. "Europe and Italy are in a phase of infrastructure transition, caused by the implementation of NRRP investments and the completion of the Ten-T corridors. To overcome this phase, the sector needs support to maintain the competitiveness of rail freight transport until the end of interventions, it is already strongly affected by the interruptions of some major Alpine crossings," says Giuseppe Rizzi, Managing Director of Fermerci.

Italy will also have to invest significantly in intermodal freight terminals. Among the 11 terminals managed by RFI and analysed in the FerMerci study, none complies with the European standard for a train length of 750m. "Harmonisation remains essential to promote intermodality and facilitate transport throughout the European rail network," says the association.

Rail transport stakeholders

Following the liberalisation of the rail freight sector, Italy has 23 rail freight operators, including fifteen members of the FerCargo association founded in 2009. In first place in the rankings is Mercitalia, a subsidiary of the incumbent Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), which held a market share of about 38% last year, down 3% from the previous year. Captrain Italia (SNCF group) and Compagnia Ferroviaria Italiana (CFI), controlled by the F2i investment fund, complete the top three, each with 11% market share, followed by Medway (MSC group) and DB Cargo Italia.


Source : RFI

The incumbent operator, Ferrovie dello Stato, intends to continue to play a major role in the development of rail freight and logistics more generally. In 2022, the group presented an industrial plan for 2022-2031, which shows a target of double the rail freight compared to 2019. FS has reviewed its governance and created "business hubs" for each of its strategic activities, including a Logistics Hub for rail freight managed by Mercitalia Logistics. Seven other companies are integrated into this hub, including Mercitalia Rail, Tx Logistik and Mercitalia Intermodal, the largest combined road/ rail transport operator in Italy and number three in Europe. The creation of this hub should make it possible to replace a highly segmented organisation with a global approach to the supply chain, including greater commercial synergy and a new customer approach through partnerships.

The group plans to invest 2.5 billion euros. This ambitious program focuses on the development of new lines, such as the Terzo Valico dei Giovi, at the southern tip of the Rhine-Alps corridor, which could "make the Genoa hub the main hub of the trade route linking the Far East to Europe, reducing maritime transport time by about five days compared to the northern seaports," emphasises FS. The group also plans the construction of new intermodal rail freight terminals, as well as the renewal of wagons, with the replacement of 3,400 vehicles and the arrival of more than 3,600 new-generation electric and hybrid models.

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Ariel F. Dumont is a journalist. Based in Italy, she is a correspondent for several French-language media.
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