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European freight transport statistics: limitations, misinterpretations and aspirations
Statistics are often derided as being boring, inaccurate or misleading. Lloyd George’s famous statement about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ is often quoted to emphasise the point. It is only through the collection, analysis and interpretation of statistics, however, that we can build up an understanding of socio-economic phenomena. Such an understanding is fundamental to government policy-making and the formulation of business strategy by companies. This is well illustrated by the freight transport sector. Within Europe it is a highly fragmented sector composed of hundreds of thousands of businesses, varying enormously in size and moving each year billions of consignments of widely varying sizes and weights on a myriad of possible routes. Given the scale and complexity of the freight transport system, it is impossible to gain an accurate sense of the changing nature and scale of activity in the absence of statistical data-bases.
The European Union is well-endowed with freight transport statistics by comparison with most other parts of the world (Figure1). Most national governments and Eurostat have elaborate systems in place to collect and process freight data for all the main transport modes. These systems are far from perfect, however, and as a result tables of published statistics contain gaps and apparent inconsistencies. The choice of metrics and data collection methods have also open to criticism. It is often, however, at the interpretation stage that problems arise, when statistics are misunderstood or deliberately manipulated to give a misleading impression of a freight trend and performance level.
This paper provides a critique of the compilation and interpretation of official freight transport statistics in Europe. It is based on a review of relevant literature, discussions with many users of these statistics and long personal experience of using them in the course of academic research and consultancy. It begins will a basic introduction to the types of freight data currently collected by the governments. This is followed by a review of the shortcomings in the present systems of data collection and the examples of how the resulting statistics can give a distorted view of the relative importance or efficiency of particular transport modes. Later sections explore the opportunities for overhauling the collection and analysis of freight data.
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