A view of the Port of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain. AP/Manu Fernandez

A new rail link to the port should help shift cargo off the roads.

Barcelona’s newest project to get freight traffic off of its roads has a beautiful simplicity to it. Starting in 2018, the city’s port will have a new rail link connected directly to a greatly improved Mediterranean rail corridor.

This rail corridor will allow shipping containers to be transported via transit straight from the port all the way to their final destinations, whether in Spain, Southern France or yet further afield. In doing so, the link will replace an impossibly clunky and under-used rail connection, one that runs on a different gauge to the rest of the rail network and requires trains to pass through nine level crossings just to get to the main transfer terminal. As infrastructure projects go, this new link is perhaps not the most exciting ever hatched—it’s a special kind of person whose heart is set aflutter by talk of gauge changes. Still, the project’s effect could nonetheless be huge.

That’s because, in a pattern typical of harbor cities, Barcelona’s road vehicles and port taken together create the vast majority of the city’s pollutant emissions. As of 2011, road vehicles were the source of 48 percent of Barcelona’s NOx emissions. At 29.5 percent of total emissions, the port itself was the second largest origin of these pollutants, although most of this volume was caused by seaborne rather than ground traffic. Anything that can nibble a chunk off this total can only improve conditions for local residents and make Catalonia a less polluted place altogether.

There’s another good reason to act now to get Barcelona’s goods off the roads. The city’s port is currently booming. In the first two months of 2016 alone, container traffic rose by 12 percent, while the port is scheduled to host 2.6 million cruise passengers this year, its largest number in five years. Currently, just 13 percent of containers landed at the port make their journey on by rail. If this proportion remains the same as the port grows, emissions are liable to rocket.

The port itself is trying to avoid this by encouraging freight companies to switch to rail. To do so they’ve promoted this map tool that allows clients to compare emissions for different modes of transit. For companies trying to reduce their emissions, the results are pretty striking. Compared to their equivalents by rail, CO2 emissions are 47 percent higher for a road trip to Madrid, while NO2 emissions are almost four times higher.

If all goes well, the rail link will link up to a hugely improved trans-European freight network stretching from Spain’s deep South to as far east as Budapest. The so-called Mediterranean Corridor is in fact already largely in existence. All it needs to provide seamless, speedier shipment across Southern Europe is an upgrade to the Spain-to-France line and new border crossings between France and Italy, and from Italy on into Slovenia.

Barcelona will still need to work on cutting emissions connected to the shipping industry, but as a major step to getting a cleaner city and region, this is the sort of plan that matters. Projects such as bike lanes may improve local air quality, while clearing cars out of city streets may have a radical, highly visible effect. But when it comes to nuts and bolts changes in the way a city economy functions, plans like Barcelona’s harbor rail link are as vital as they are unobtrusive.

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