Towards future-proof inland waterway transport and ports

By Caroline Nagtegaal-van Doorn , MEP ( Renew Europe – Netherlands) Member of the TRAN and ECON committees

Waterborne transport is not a new territory for me. As a Rotterdam citizen having worked at the Port of Rotterdam, I can say that the Maas River flows through my veins. I still enjoy the big tankers and ships that enter and leave the city and I am proud of my city and of what we have accomplished together.

This pride is not limited to Rotterdam or to the Netherlands. I talked a great deal with people from every corner of the inland waterway sector over the past year and one thing really stands out for me: the sector is fully energised to take on the challenges of tomorrow hands on – both in view of the energy transition as well as claiming their central role in the multimodal transport system and innovative business development. I admire that a lot. That is why I took the initiative to come up with a report in Parliament including recommendations for the path towards a future-proof inland waterway transport sector in Europe.

My report shows the clear potential and added value of inland waterway transport and ports specifically for further development of synchro modal transport as well as for the TEN-T core and comprehensive networks. This is often forgotten about in the transport debate. We need an efficient and smoothly running transport system, in which the modal shift plays a role.

The recently published Smart & Sustainable Mobility Strategy sets a target to boost the modal shift and increase the share of inland waterway transport by 25% in 2030 and by 50% in 2050.

Important prerequisites for accomplishing these goals are a clear focus on digitalisation, efficiency improvement and sustainability. That way, the inland waterway sector will become a strong competitor to other modes of transport. The developments in the road sector are going fast, so we need to take a sprint starting today.

For this modal shift to succeed, we need data on the European logistics system and the flow of goods and containers entering Europe. This could provide valuable insights for effectively implementing new modal shift policy (think of the Combined Transport Directive review coming up) and it leads to more efficient planning and use of physical infrastructure. River Information Services (RIS) also plays a role here, which needs to be further harmonised.

We need to connect existing digital transport policy frameworks and to make sure that transport data are available through one single point of access. An action plan for multimodal transport data sharing is needed, with the goal of achieving a synchro-modal transport system by 2035 at the latest.

This will help to transfer cargo more easily to rail for example in case of low water periods.

Furthermore, a transition towards greening transport and infrastructure is needed. We should not be seeing this as a ‘must’, something that we simply ‘have to do’. Because it offers plenty of opportunities, and everyone will benefit from it! We have all the ingredients, all the abilities and knowledge to make this a success.

Ports play an indispensable role in achieving our green ambitions in the European Green Deal and a circular economy approach plays a big role in this regard. The world’s population is expected to peak at 10 billion in 2050 and our resources are not limitless. A circular approach helps us to prevent exhausting our resources and creates business opportunities that can offer new ways to mitigate these risks and allows ports and business to grow. Ports are an ideal location to develop circular economy projects. In fact, they can be the matchmakers, because both the presence of industry and the proximity to large urban agglomerations make them ideal places to turn waste into products. And it creates jobs!


Ports have the potential to become the clean energy hubs of tomorrow. They can really be the backbone of the future energy networks, think of fuels such as hydrogen or electrification. These alternatives are being researched in the CLINSH and RH2INE projects, and it became clear that there is enormous potential for further growth here.

Lessons must also be learned from the past, as with LNG, where we waited too long with building the infrastructure and the commercial uptake and use started therefore slowly. The role out of an alternative fuels infrastructure for multimodal use should be focussing on a network approach. That is why I am glad to see the focus on the TEN-T core and comprehensive networks in the currently revised Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation. This way we can effectively decarbonise the transport of goods in Europe. An efficiently planned, tailor-made infrastructure, based on demand and market characteristics of sea and inland ports is important here, so that oversupply is avoided. The Port of Rotterdam is simply very different from the Port of Strasbourg.

In conclusion, the time is now to take fate into our own hands and show leadership. Only then, we can make the Green & Digital Dream a reality. By working together well, we can achieve it. To the benefit of the inland waterway sector, of ports, of the entire transport system: to the benefit of us all. If we do that, the corona crisis and our task to become a fully digitalised and zero-emission sector will also become much easier to navigate.