In the European Union, a vast network of approximately 41,000 kilometres of inland waterways winds through 25 Member States. This intricate crisscross of water routes is a lifeline for many and is especially vital in densely populated and congested regions, where traditional transport modes face limitations. The rising adverse effects of climate change and other contingencies, however, pose a threat to the sustained and efficient functioning of Europe’s inland waterways, which could cost lives or livelihoods. ERTICO’s EU-funded PLOTO project is dedicated to ensuring reliable network availability under unfavourable conditions, such as extreme weather, accidents, and other kinds of hazards, to boost the resilience of inland waterways infrastructures and connected land infrastructures.

A dedicated workforce of approximately 44,000 individuals operates inland vessels in the EU, with 60% engaged in goods transport and the remaining 40% involved in passenger services. Every year, an impressive cargo load of about 150 billion ton-kilometres is transported via Europe’s inland waterways.

EU’s Commitment to Inland Waterways

Recognising the immense potential of these waterways, in June 2021 the European Commission unveiled an ambitious 35-point action plan, aiming to elevate the significance of inland waterway transport within our mobility and logistics systems. The primary objective is twofold: to redirect more cargo onto Europe’s rivers and canals, and to facilitate the transition to zero-emission barges by 2050. This aligns perfectly with the European Green Deal and the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, both of which share the goal of increasing inland waterway and short-sea shipping by 25% by 2030 and an even more ambitious 50% by 2050.

Within this framework, the Commission has allocated funding to the PLOTO project, a 42-months research initiative dedicated to enhancing the resilience of Inland WaterWays (IWW) infrastructures and their associated land infrastructures. This project seeks to ensure the dependable availability of IWW networks even under adverse conditions, such as extreme weather events, accidents, and other unforeseen hazards. Over 42 months, the project will work to capitalise on the European Union’s comprehensive action plan designed to lay the groundwork for the inland waterway transport sector.

Amongst these initiatives are the revision of the Combined Transport Directive and the support for investments in transshipment capacity and inland multimodal terminals, enabling the seamless integration of inland waterways into a modern, trans-European intermodal transport system. The impending revision of the Combined Transport Directive will treat inland waterways as a pivotal component of intermodal transport. Moreover, the Commission will establish a comprehensive EU framework for measuring and reporting emissions from logistics and transport, potentially bolstering the demand for more sustainable options, including inland waterways, wherever feasible.

Embracing innovation and digitalisation

Inland waterway transport boasts several inherent advantages, such as energy efficiency, safety, minimal congestion, and noise reduction when compared to other land-based modes. Enhanced digitalisation is also expected to play a significant role in improving navigation and traffic management efficiency, better integrating inland waterway transport into logistics processes and multimodal chains, and reducing the administrative burden and costs associated with regulatory compliance and enforcement.

PLOTO is leading the technological drive by operating, testing, and demonstrating in three pilot sites located in Belgium, Romania, and Hungary. The collaboration among over 20 European partners, with ERTICO supporting with expertise in project management and dissemination tasks, has the primary objective to develop a platform to enable multifaceted hazard assessment and optimise operational and strategic decision-making processes for the management and maintenance of inland waterways. Its overarching aim is to establish a novel integrated system that supports both operational and strategic adaptation and mitigation measures, contributing to the long-term sustainability and reliability of Europe’s inland waterway transport network.

The project enhances the potential of inland waterways to play a central role in decarbonising the European transport systems. As PLOTO marks its first anniversary since its launch in September 2022, the project remains steadfast in its commitment to advancing both methodology and technology, bolstered by the invaluable support of experts within its three living labs in Europe.

Dr Nikolaos Tsampieris, Senior manager at ERTICO ITS-Europe and ERTICO lead in the project, highlighted how “PLOTO’s comprehensive approach reinforces the European Commission’s commitment to advancing inland waterway transport as a key pillar of sustainable and resilient European Logistics and Mobility systems. Moreover, it underscores ERTICO’s commitment to fostering innovation and climate change resilience transforming inland waterways in an example of sustainability and technological advancement.”