Brain-Trains project

Brain Trains


Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks – TRanversal Assessment of Intermodal New Strategies 2012-2017


Efficient freight transport systems are critical for Europe’s economic competitiveness and commercial exchanges. In particular, intermodal transport, i.e. combining at least two modes, is essential to the realization of world trade activities. Intermodal transport has been acknowledged as both an ecological choice and one that promises potential economies of scale. Indeed, environment friendly transport modes are used for most of the journey, road travel being kept to the minimum. However, the complex network of actors and stakeholders involved throughout the whole intermodal transport chain accounts for hard and intricate decision problems. To date, intermodal services have failed to attract the desired customer levels on most freight corridors in Europe, as attested by the current imbalance in modal split on land, with 71.7% of EU freight transport taking place via road (European Commission, 2017).

BRAIN-TRAINS’ main achievement is to have developed a blueprint establishing the detailed criteria and conditions for developing an innovative intermodal network in and through Belgium as part of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). Concretely, the project devises an operational framework within which effective intermodal transport can be successfully established, and in which all stakeholders can participate and benefit. Although the emphasis is placed on rail intermodality and on freight transport, the latter's interaction with passenger transport is taken into account, as passenger and freight transport use the same network, and many policy instruments (e.g. infrastructure construction, road pricing etc.) impact on both transport segments. BRAIN-TRAINS has considered five issues relating to the organization and optimization of rail freight networks, added value, environmental impact, market organization and government functioning. These issues are dealt with in a truly interdisciplinary approach including interlinkages, mutual inputs as well as feedback loops. Its findings amount to twenty-five conclusions and recommendations.

The HEC Liege team (Dr. Martine Mostert, Dr. Christine Tawfik and Pr. Sabine Limbourg) has highlighted the potential efficiency of intermodal transport in Belgium by modelling the managerial problem using mathematical programming and optimization techniques. To the purpose of enhancing the various stakeholders' decision-making process in the intermodal transport chain, the team chose two main angles: the domestic scale, i.e. flows within Belgium, and the European scale, i.e. with Belgium as main start/endpoint of the flows. An economic perspective (minimization of operational costs) was compared to two environmental perspectives (minimization of CO2 emissions and air pollution external costs). Tactical planning issues were also considered. Freight bundling is a central characteristic of long-distance systems as it is not viable to customize services. In this respect, the tactical planning process is particularly challenging due to the network-wide scale of the decisions and the tradeoffs involved. We specifically examined the relevant questions concerning the design and pricing of service networks (

BRAIN-TRAINS has delivered new and much sought-after results both by the sector and by policymakers. The latter have very positively received BRAIN-TRAINS' achievements, and especially aspire to the continuation and the translation of the findings into actual strategies and policies. It is important indeed that the sector and policymakers take these recommendations into account to support their decisions.