26 November 2021


Eurostat and the UNCTAD published last week reports on maritime, road and rail freight volumes in 2020. All modes of transport have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and have seen freight volumes drops compared to precedent years.

Total road freight transport in the EU fell by almost 1% in terms of tonne-kilometres (tkm) compared with 2019. This caused a disruption in the upward trend seen in recent years. Usually, the second quarter of the year sees the highest number of tkm performed. However, the second quarter of 2020 experienced the height of the restrictive measures to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, where the number of tkm performed in the EU fell by 8% from Q1 2020, and by 10% from Q2 2019. Despite this, road freight transport recovered to levels even higher than before the pandemic in the third and fourth quarters of 2020, respectively with a 2% increase from Q3 2019 and a 3% increase from Q4 2019.

While EU rail freight transport was less impacted by COVID-19 compared to passenger transport, its performance fell by 6% in 2020 compared with 2019 (in tonne-kilometres), with the second quarter of 2020 being the most impacted (-15% compared with the same period of 2019). However, the last quarter of 2020 recorded a slight growth compared with the same quarter of the previous year (+6%). In absolute terms, Germany was the country with the highest decrease in rail freight transport, with a 20 million tonnes drop in 2020 compared to 2019.

On 18 November, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development issued its annual Review of Maritime Transport, analysing maritime transport trends and future outlooks. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted maritime transport, though the outcome was less damaging than initially feared. The shock in the first half of 2020 caused maritime trade to contract by 3.8% in 2020. But in the second half of the year there was a nascent, if asymmetric, recovery, and by the third quarter, volumes had returned, for both containerized trade and dry bulk commodities. In 2021, maritime trade is projected to increase by 4.3%. The medium-term outlook also remains positive, though subject to mounting risks and uncertainties, and moderated in line with projected lower growth economy. Over the past two decades, compound annual growth in maritime trade has been 2.9%, but over the period 2022–2026, UNCTAD expects that rate to slow to 2.4%.

Source: Eurostat (road and rail), UNCTAD