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Intermodal transport: The Marco Polo Programme

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Intermodal transport: The Marco Polo Programme

Road freight transport is entirely dependent on fossil fuel and is thus a major CO2 contributor. Greater recourse therefore needs to be had to intermodality, which makes better use of existing infrastructure and service resources by integrating short sea shipping, rail transport and inland waterways into the logistics chain. It is in this context that the Marco Polo Programme (2003-2006) aims to shift freight from the roads to more environmentally friendly modes.


Regulation (EC) No 1382/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 July 2003 on the granting of Community financial assistance to improve the environmental performance of the freight transport system (Marco Polo Programme).



1. Since 1975, combined transport policy (transport operations where the main part of the journey is by rail, inland waterway or sea) has encouraged a modal shift from road freight transport to rail, inland waterway and, more recently, short sea shipping.

2. The White Paper on Transport observes that, if no decisive action is taken, road freight transport in the European Union (EU) is set to grow by about 50% by 2010 and cross-border traffic to double by 2020.

3. The previous PACT Programme (1997-2001) set out to increase the use of combined transport by supporting market-driven innovative initiatives (pilot actions) in the combined transport services sector. Marco Polo, for its part, is more than a mere extension of the PACT programme which aims to reduce congestion in the road freight transport sector.

4. However, many commercial and operational obstacles affect all other forms of transport and these obstacles have to be overcome for such freight markets to be viable. Moreover, the Member States alone cannot achieve an optimum solution to the problems associated with the constant growth in international road freight transport.

The Marco Polo programme

5. The financial framework for implementing the Marco Polo programme over the period 1 January 2003 to 31 December 2006 is 75 million euros.

6. The Marco Polo programme aims to relieve congestion of road infrastructures and improve the environmental performance of the whole transport system by shifting part of road freight to short sea shipping, rail and inland waterway.

7. Like the previous PACT programme, Marco Polo aims to support commercially-oriented services in the freight transport market and finance actions involving candidate countries.

8. Unlike the PACT programme, Marco Polo sets quantified and verifiable objectives for modal shift. More specifically, the aim is to maintain the traffic share between the various transport modes for the year 2010 at its 1998 level.

9. The programme will be geared towards promoting commercially oriented services in the freight transport market. Neither research and development nor infrastructure measures are its focus.

10. The ultimate objective is to help shift international freight transport from road to short sea shipping, rail and inland waterway. This amounts to some 12 billion t km per year.

11. The Marco Polo programme helps finance three types of project:

  • Modal shift actions to shift road traffic to other modes of transport by providing start-up aid for new non-road freight transport services.Setting up new non-road freight transport services is always risky. For example, regular maritime, rail and inland waterway services need a load factor of about 70 to 90% to stay viable.The costs of setting up a new service may be co-funded up to a maximum of 30%.
  • Catalyst actions involving innovative measures to overcome structural barriers in the market.This would involve, for example, setting up motorways of the sea or high quality international rail freight services, operated on a one-stop shop basis. These actions should change the way in which non-road freight transport operations are carried out and use trans-European transport networks or pan-European corridors.The maximum amount of aid is 35%.
  • Common learning action.The aim is to step up cooperation and exchange of know-how among operators in the freight logistics market in order to improve the sector's environmental performance.Community financial assistance is limited to 50%.

12. The Marco Polo programme applies to actions concerning the territory of at least two Member States or at least one Member State and one close third country.



Entry into force

Deadline for transposition in the Member States

Official Journal

Regulation (EC) No 1382/2003 [adoption: COD/2004/0157]



OJ L 196 of 02.08.2003


Council Directive 92/106/EEC of 7 December 1992 on the establishment of common rules for certain types of combined transport of goods between Member States [OJ L 368 of 17.12.1992].

Commission communication of 29 May 1997 on intermodality and the intermodal carriage of goods within the European Union: a systems logic for the carriage of goods; strategies and activities intended to promote efficiency, services and sustainable development [COM(97) 243 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Amended proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on intermodal loading units [COM/2004/0361 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the second "Marco Polo" programme for the granting of Community financial assistance to improve the environmental performance of the freight transport system ("Marco Polo II") [COM(2004) 478 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

The proposal for a renewed Marco Polo programme does not fundamentally change the nature and procedures of the programme. Indeed, the three current types of action (modal shift, catalyst and common learning actions) are maintained under basically the same funding conditions and requirements. However, there are two new features:

  • wider geographic scope: to provide for a better environmental performance of the transport system within the EU, intermodal options and alternatives to road transport must also be considered outside the EU;
  • new action types: the next Marco Polo programme needs to achieve an overall reduction of international road freight transport via the development of motorways of the sea and traffic avoidance actions.

Last updated: 23.01.2007