Opinions - 13.05.2014 - 00:00 

The public perception of freight transport

In early 2014, the Swiss voting public adopted the Initiative on Funding and Upgrading Switzerland’s Rail Infrastructure (FABI). Wolfgang Stölzle on the great demands made on logistical processes and the planned goods transport terminal in Eastern Switzerland.


12 May 2014. Transport issues are often only in the margins of public interest – although they concern each and every one of us. The adoption of the Initiative on Funding and Upgrading Switzerland’s Rail Infrastructure, or FABI for short, was well-nigh “drowned out” by the resonance of the “curb on immigration”.

Nowadays, goods are supposed to be always and everywhere immediately. This applies to retail outlets as well as filling stations, online shops and the supply of factories with raw materials, materials and components. Consumer and behaviour research speaks of a societal development of “at-onceness”. Spontaneity is suppressing planning in human behaviour. This development requires logistics to be increasingly more efficient – and this in the face of a growing diversity of goods and thus with an increasing choice range of articles.

Limited willingness to pay for logistical services

By contrast, the willingness to pay for logistical services is greatly limited. This can be seen in online commerce and the high degree of sensitivity to the acceptance of shipping costs that prevails there. It is also demonstrated by the great success of the post-free business concept of Zalando.

Additional costs for returns, however, are not approved of by e-commerce customers. The generation of a willingness to pay for new investments or simply the maintenance of transport infrastructure is proving to be even more difficult. Although the latter is used to provide transport services of all kinds – according to the motto “Transport can only be as good as the infrastructure” – citizens have not got a direct point of contact with it and therefore also fail to see a direct necessity of bearing any additional costs. The referendum on the price increase of the motorway tax sticker, which was roundly rejected, is a case in point: it was turned down although it directly addressed personal transport and thus the citizens themselves.

For generally, benefits – and thus also costs – for personal mobility stand a comparably greater chance of being accepted by the people, particularly it they are related to personal advantages. This was shown by the ballot on FABI, which was skilfully described with concrete upgrading steps for personal transport and made palatable to the voting public with the help of concrete advantages, particularly with regard to public transport.

What is not necessarily widely known is the extent to which FABI’s complex funding model was reflected on by the voters. Thus the cantons will be made to pay up, for example; the direct federal tax will be affected through a deduction on travelling costs, and one tenth of a per cent of the value added tax will be channelled off for FABI. In addition, train path prices will increase, which may lead to higher railway ticket prices. This gives rise to the assumption that the perception of individual advantages was decisive for the wide acceptance of FABI. And yet: FABI appears to have vanished into thin air already.

Things become more difficult when decisions regarding freight transport are concerned, because freight transport has an almost exclusive negative perception in public opinion. Thus lorries are blamed for traffic congestion, noise, CO2 emissions, climate change and traffic accidents.

With air traffic, which besides people also carries freight, it is aircraft noise that is criticised, and with regard to rail freight transport, noise is also the focus of public annoyance. Added to this, freight transport is perceived to be disruptive in terms of personal requirements. Thus lorries obstruct road traffic, for instance with overtaking manoeuvres, or they clog up inner cities for loading and unloading purposes. Only one thing does not appear to be clear: without goods transport, factories would shut down, shelves would be empty and filling stations would be without any fuel. Evidently, there is a contradiction in public perception: we do not see any necessity for freight transport, may be annoyed at the negative aspects and forget what benefits we derive from it.

Goods transport terminal in Gossau

Now there will be an opportunity for a change of mood in Eastern Switzerland: the plans for a terminal for combined road/rail transport in Gossau could be communicated to the general public in positive terms: so-called bimodal and trimodal terminals allow for the deployment of combined transport systems and link up carriers. In this way, freight transport can be moved from road to rail. Even more: an Eastern Swiss logistics initiative would positively highlight the benefits contributed by freight transport. After all, logistics provides benefits for individual citizens as much as for the national economy as a whole. The principle applies: logistics is not everything, but without logistics, everything is nothing!

Photo: jala /

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