Members' Research Service By / April 25, 2023

EU inland waterways transport developments: Update

Did you know a total 37 000 navigable kilometres connect 13 European Union (EU) countries?r

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Written by Karin Jacobs.

Did you know a total 37 000 navigable kilometres connect 13 European Union (EU) countries? These inland waterways play an important role in transporting goods in Europe. As part of the EU effort to reduce CO2 emissions from transport, the European Commission proposes to accelerate the shift of freight transport to less polluting and more energy efficient modes, such as the inland shipping sector, under the European Green Deal and the EU’s sustainable and smart mobility strategy. Unlike the European road network, there is also sufficient waterway capacity to cope with an increase in traffic.

However, to play its role to the full, the inland waterways transport sector needs to overcome certain challenges to becoming greener, digital and climate resilient. These include protecting waterways from the effects of flooding and drought, which have happened frequently in Europe in recent years. Inland waterway vessels therefore need to become ‘smart’, and infrastructure, including in ports, needs to be improved. Greater investment is also needed in digital technologies, as well as ensuring there is a sufficient and qualified workforce. The European NAIADES III programme (2021-2027) supports these objectives and reforms, aiming at better navigability and setting ports as multimodal hubs and providers of alternative fuels, as promoted under the EU’s Fit for 55 package, the building block for the Green Deal.

The European Parliament strongly supports the decarbonisation of transport through this modal shift. In its most recent resolution, Parliament demands the establishment of dedicated EU funding for the inland waterways transport sector, as well as the creation of a framework of rules to support inter-modality and improve connections between national waterways. Parliament’s focus on the shift from road to inland waterways and the development of a future-proof inland waterways transport system includes making ports energy hubs, ensuring better working conditions for personnel and stimulating urban transport. Parliament has insisted that funding match the EU’s ambitions for cleaner transport.

During its April 2023 plenary session, Parliament also took important decisions on the Fit for 55 package. These add to those taken earlier in 2023 on alternative fuels infrastructure (AFIR), including onshore power and electricity and alternative fuels for vessels at inland ports. Parliament has also given its approval for the revision of the Trans-European Network for Transport (TEN-T), focusing on ensuring a good navigation status for the core network and minimising waiting times at locks. Maritime ports connected to inland waterways will need to be equipped with dedicated handling capacity for inland waterway vessels. For both inland and maritime ports, connectivity requirements and obligations to provide alternative fuels have now been updated.

The EU funding for inland waterways transport reform is made available under several streams of the current European multi-annual financial framework. An important part of the funding is managed by the European Climate Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency (CINEA). This is the case for among others the TEN-T Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). Funding is also provided under the financial instrument for the environment (LIFE programme) and the Horizon research programme for waterborne research and investment projects. Other funding is available under i.e. the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), Invest EU, and the Innovation Fund.

Under the Horizon programme, the Commission finances an important flagship project – Platina 3. This project serves as a platform of 14 key inland waterways transport partners and provides a €2 million budget for the implementation of the NAIADES III action programme. During the EU Inland Navigation Week, which took place at the end of March 2023, this particular platform attracted a great deal of attention. At its final event, looking back at its contribution to the EU objectives for inland waterways transport, Platina 3 focused on four different aspects: markets, the inland waterways transport fleet, jobs and skills, and infrastructure. The project has helped to increase innovation and research and development, digitalisation and automation, competitiveness and economic viability, as well as to create the necessary regulatory framework and coordinate EU countries’ interactions on all these four aspects. Platina 3 has produced several reports, studies and pilots addressing the challenges concerned and their possible solutions, taking different approaches. These include:

  • creation of a European inland waterways transport policy (and funding) observatory;
  • investment in sustainable alternative fuels (bio liquid natural gas, bio methanol, hydrogen, and biofuels), including certification and uptake;
  • research and investment to create zero-emission solutions for (pilot) vessels (i.e. electrification);
  • improved energy efficiency;
  • better design and retrofitting, digitalisation/automated navigation;  
  • climate resilient vessels and infrastructure, including ports;
  • jobs and adapted skills for alternative energy carriers and automation.

The current focus for inland waterways transport is on the implementation of the current NAIADES III programme. Flagship projects, such as the Platina 3 platform make a significant contribution in this case. At the same time, the sector is in need of additional funding for the execution of the necessary reforms and measures, which, could come from national governments, stakeholders and from the EU. The European Commission is expected to present a review of the current Directive on River Information Services (RIS) later in 2023, which should further improve inland navigation.

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