Q: When is a rail project not a rail project? A: When it’s meant to get people into planes.

June 20, 2012

The EU should not be funding airport projects, or dressing up airport express train links as green "intermodal hubs" says T&E's deputy director Nina Renshaw.

European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas got his lines crossed again earlier this month. A new high-speed rail link has opened that will connect Brussels airport to Brussels and Antwerp city centres. Mr Kallas describes the airport as an “intermodal hub” and rejoices that it’s now connected to the high-speed network between Brussels, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Cologne.

The project probably does give him some personal reasons to be cheerful. It’ll make his trips home to Estonia literally minutes quicker. (The airport’s only 13km from the city centre, so it won’t be making much of a time saving). But maybe it’s more of a relief that there’s one more checked off the TEN-T Priority Project list, bringing the grand total to six. So that leaves only 24 of the 30 projects with an uncertain future.

That list was first drawn up in 1994, and added to in 2004 for the eastern enlargement. Looking at the few projects that have been finished, the notable ones are a big airport (Priority Project 10: Milan Malpensa) and a very large road and rail bridge (PP11: Oresund link between Copenhagen and Malmö), which both provoked serious environmental concerns and protests at the time of construction. For the EU’s flagship transport policy, not a great track record.

“Brussels” is not known for its ability to spin – it usually fails to put any positive shine on policy choices (even the good ones) to the press and the public – but to present an airport link as a green railway project, or an intermodal hub, might just be a case for the spin doctors.  And they might diagnose two critical symptoms:

Firstly, a faintly Orwellian “2 rails good, 4 wheels bad” complex. The good old modal shift argument is becoming convenient greenwash, used to promote dirty interests. The green movement has moved on – not all rail projects are by nature the best, most sustainable choice. A high-speed link will guzzle more energy than a conventional link, and a high speed link to an airport will ultimately put people in planes, it will make the fastest way to heat the planet even faster. The best proof is airport executives at TEN-T conferences crowing about ‘comodality’ knowing full well it means better access and more passengers for them. People giving up their car for those 13km will be a drop in the (rising) ocean.

And secondly, denial of the economic reality. What’s really the best use of limited EU funds? Transport Ministers have just decided to allow some of the next round of TEN-T funds to be spent on major road construction projects.  Whilst their Finance Minister colleagues are figuring out how to make sure the Euro even exists in the near future, the transport ministries are fighting for chunks of the ever-shrinking pot to go to their pet projects. To his credit, Kallas is not pleased with all this.

To make sure the irony isn’t lost, guess who was shouting loudest to get EU money for road projects?  Was it Malta or Cyprus, where there are no railways? Was it Romania or Poland, where the roads need to be made safer? Was it Greece, where the coffers are less-than-empty and it would be difficult to ask drivers to pay? No, it was the Netherlands. Shameless.

It’s not yet sure how much of the proposed €32bn proposed for transport will really materialise. The only certainty is it will be slashed. Now with roads taking a share of the pot too – and let’s face it, this part always gets spent first and fastest – there will be even less for rail. So, we have to favour the genuinely smart and sustainable projects.

We have some simple rules:

1. No money for airport projects. Full stop. Not even rail links to airports. They increase emissions. And anyway, where there’s real demand (not artificial demand created by subsidies to attract planes, particularly of the orange and blue varieties – that’s Easyjet and Ryanair for the non plane spotters), the private sector is usually happy to stump up the cash. Why 14 other countries (at that time) needed to help Milan build another airport is a mystery.

2. Ask users to pay. Who is best placed to finance highways in Holland, but currently get them for as-good-as free? That’s right, the drivers who want to use them. It’ll ease congestion and move people into public transport and get them out on their beloved bikes. That’s real added value.

3. Compare rail projects according to where the money will help the most people and cut the most emissions. This means looking very critically at high-speed rail. It will likely only have a positive emissions balance when it diverts people from planes, and even then it’ll depend on where the energy comes from. Could the same money be spent better on another rail project? Rumour has it that €8bn would revolutionise rail in Poland. That sum could buy either one brand new high-speed link between Warsaw, Poznan and Wroclaw for business travellers and tourists, or upgrade the entire local and regional commuter rail network to stop the downward spiral and give an attractive alternative to cars to millions of people. Take a quick look at the economics or the emissions, it won’t be a tough choice.

High-speed links are only likely to be worth it if they get a lot of people out of planes, e.g. between Paris and Lyon or Brussels and London. With it now being a little easier to get to Brussels airport, perhaps some of those Eurostar passengers will even shift back?

With a nice hint of Belgian humour the new link is called Diabolo. Maybe we’re not alone in thinking that the EU’s infrastructure policy so far has been pretty diabolical.