The European Year of Rail can support the Green Deal and sustainable recovery. Europe needs more international trains with easier booking.
The Covid-19 crisis has turned our mobility patterns upside down. Working from home has become the new normal, companies have discovered the benefits of online meetings and travellers are likely to spend holidays closer to home.
At the same time, the climate crisis is forcing us to rethink the way we travel and transport goods. The European Union can only reach its climate-neutrality target if transport emissions drop.
We cannot go back to pre-pandemic transport patterns; rather, we should use the dislocation to reinvent mobility in Europe. Luckily, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Rail is the cleanest and most reliable means of long-distance transport and we can build on the railway network constructed over two centuries in Europe, turning rail again into the backbone of a sustainable system.
The momentum for a European rail renaissance is growing. A recent survey by the European Investment Bank revealed that 74 per cent of respondents intended to fly less frequently for environmental reasons, once restrictions were lifted, and 71 per cent planned to choose trains over planes for short-haul trips.
The rail system is not yet in shape, though. On average, rail accounts for only 8 per cent of passenger transport. The Achilles heel is cross-border rail: the European system is only a patchwork of national systems. Ask anyone who has ever tried to cross several European countries by train.
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While an extensive network of day-and-night trains connected cities across Europe only a few decades ago, most of these lines have been discontinued. Today, not even all the capitals of neighbouring countries are connected via attractive rail services. Travellers often need to change trains several times and risk missing the connecting train. There is no direct connection between Madrid and Paris or Paris and Berlin; the 600km trip from Madrid to Lisbon requires three changes and takes 11 hours.
These city links offer a large untapped potential for rail. Before the coronavirus crisis, more than 3,000 people flew every day between Berlin and Paris. Yet rail can only become a serious alternative if the services are fast and convenient. Direct services between capitals and major cities are the minimum.
This does not necessarily require new infrastructure. More efficient use of existing rail tracks and better co-ordination of timetables would often do the job. Why is it not happening?
First, rail operators and governments focus on their national market and often lack an international vision. Secondly, running international trains is much more complex and expensive: rolling stock needs to be designed and licensed for different national electricity, signalling and safety systems; drivers need to speak the languages of each country; operators need to apply for track capacity with the network managers of each state. Harmonisation of rules and standards will take time.
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What is needed to overcome these obstacles is first and foremost a European spirit—a vision of a larger and truly European rail network. The German transport minister, Andreas Scheuer, proposed in September 2020 to revive the Trans-Europe Express, which offered long-distance services across western and central Europe in the 1960s and 70s.
Scheuer proposed initially eight international routes, with one daily train pair each—a good starting point. But the European network we need should offer frequent services, integrate ultra-long-distance trains with shorter lines and connect to regional services. Rail operators, network managers and governments across Europe should join forces to build such a European vision.
This should not pre-empt the launch of new international rail services in the meantime. A start could be a new east-west European line connecting Warsaw to Paris or a north-south line from Amsterdam to Barcelona. Given the administrative and technical hurdles international rail faces, this will require a political push and start-up support from governments. Governments should also facilitate co-ordination among the different actors.
Travelling by rail needs to become at least as easy as travelling by plane. This also applies to the booking of tickets.
It is currently impossible to find and compare all rail services and prices online. For non-direct international services this means travellers need to buy tickets for each leg of the journey. It is not possible to book a ticket from Frankfurt to Barcelona online—neither on the website of one of the involved rail operators (Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, Renfe) nor on independent sites such as Trainline or Omio. In contrast, amid the pandemic Google Flights indicated 60 flight connections and respective prices for this route.
It is difficult to understand why one can easily book a plane ticket to another continent yet not a rail ticket to a European neighbour. Technically, it is already possible to integrate the necessary information from different operators. But European law does not yet oblige them to share fares and real-time data—platform changes, delays. Yet the latter are critical for a seamless journey and for passengers to be able to find alternative connections in case of disruption.
Few member states have moved beyond EU requirements, creating legal fragmentation. Finland requires all public-transport operators to grant access to all relevant data and to share these via an Application Programming Interface. This allows mobility providers to offer truly multi-modal tickets.
The European Commission and national governments have long trusted in the rail operators to find a common solution—but this has never appeared. The European Year of Rail 2021 is the right moment to solve this question and bring rail booking into the 21st century.
Although much can be done with existing infrastructure, an attractive rail network will require improvements. In many eastern-European member states, the network only allows for very slow operating speeds. Border crossings and key EU corridors will also need attention. Out of the 365 cross-border rail links that once existed, 149 were not operational in 2018.
EU funding makes up an important share of overall transport infrastructure funding and can be a lever for other sources. Yet too much goes into roads and airports, too little into rail. Much even of that is spent on mega-projects with exploding costs, long delays and sometimes only limited European value. The European Court of Auditors cautioned in 2018 that projects were often chosen on a political basis—not sound cost-benefit analysis—and lacked co-ordination across borders.
Instead, EU funding should support the modal shift towards rail and prioritise projects that are key to cross-border connectivity. The focus should be on low-hanging fruit (such as electrification) instead of new mega-projects. EU institutions also need to make sure that member states accompany interventions with transformative policy measures which guarantee the efficient use of the infrastructure.
In this European Year of Rail, the EU and national governments need to seize those low-hanging fruit which could improve international rail services immediately and initiate a rail renaissance. This can help the EU achieve its climate targets, drive European recovery and connect people, cities and countries.