What role for rail ?
Speech by Jos Dings to the European Commission conference ‘What Role for Rail?’
Ladies and gentlemen
Let me start by thanking the Commission for this initiative to discuss the future of Europe’s rail policy in public, and for giving us the opportunity to speak.
T&E is the Brussels-based NGO umbrella organization that promotes an environmentally sustainable approach to transport policy. We have 44 member organizations drawn from 20 European states.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me first stress that the Commission took a right and necessary in organising this event. There is a lot of unclarity about the so-called ‘comodality’ and there is a need to make clear what it is about.
In this speech I’ll not talk about road vs rail because that does not make sense – the two modes are not comparable and often are not in direct competition.
I’ll talk about the maybe outdated but clear concepts of intermodal vs monomodal transport. So – private car & lorry transport as opposed to using rail, bus and waterways for the main stretch of a journey, and lorry, bike, or foot for the remainder.
Will highlight public perception, advantages of rail, shortly evaluate EU policy, and make some recommendations.
Survey after survey indicates that the public is very supportive of intermodal transport, especially for passengers. The public finds public transport clearly a good way to spend tax money on. The public seems to recognise that car transport has disadvantages and is prepared to pay for the alternative.
But policy makers are increasingly reluctant to follow this advice. In the race to balance budgets they see subsidies to public transport as an easy way to cut.
How can that be explained ? I will make an attempt.
Advantages of intermodal transport
- Environmental. Less CO2, air pollution, and noise. Well known. Exception high speed rail – where car is environmentally competitive
- Safety. Intermodal transport is safer than car or lorry transport.
- Energy security. Easier to have intermodal transport run on something else than oil than cars or trucks.
- Social. Those who cannot afford a car, or are too young, too old, or disabled. for passenger transport only, not for high speed rail.
- Space. Intermodal transport is much more space efficient, in particular in case of passenger transport.
- Option value. People find it comfortable to have an alternative choice and are willing to pay for its existence, even if they rarely use it. Especially for passenger transport
- Health and obesity. The car is one of the major factors behind our rising obesity. An active transport pattern, generally an intermodal one, easily provides the 30 to 45 minutes of moderate physical activity a day. Especially for urban and regional passenger transport. We should not move to US where 100% reliance on car has contributed to making the population very ‘weight challenged’ to put it in a politically correct way. Transport literally has a vital role to play. Underestimated.
What has EU been doing ?
On the basis of these observations we can make a short evaluation of what the EU has done
The EU has been making rail more efficient through liberalisation and interoperability. This has been broadly the right approach to make rail, in particular freight, more efficient
The EU has been focusing on freight and high speed rail – which are unfortunately the kind of intermodal transport with fewest societal benefits. The EU almost ignored human-scale intermodal passenger transport.
The EU has also been focusing on economically doubtful megaprojects that Member States alone are reluctant to finance. Some say that this is Europe’s role – we doubt it. We believe that Europe’s role is to improve the quality of life for EU citizens, not providing the funding for otherwise unviable projects.
The latter two policies have contributed to the perception that intermodal transport is expensive in comparison to the benefits it offers, while a the same time relatively minor investments could have prevented the slipping of market share of rail across Europe.
So EU policy has not addressed the strengths of intermodal transport and has made it easy to criticise in as being too expensive.
The way forward – seven recommendations
- Much better assessment of economic, social and environmental impacts of EU-sponsored projects – to avoid pushing the wrong projects. Often critical improvements can be made at little cost.
- Issue a high-quality study to make a closer investigation of the forgotten benefits of intermodal passenger transport.
- Refocus attention for intermodal transport on areas where this is most justified from a socio-economic point of view – human-scale urban and regional intermodal passenger transport. Infrastructure money from structural and cohesion funds should be more directed towards upgrades and missing links in intermodal passenger transport at urban, regional, national and international level.
- Do not forget about the bus as a relatively cheap option ! A bus is not rail, but the fact that it has rubber wheels and runs on asphalt should not be the issue
- Forge stronger links with DG SANCO. Health policy almost exclusively focuses on food and ignores the enormous contribution transport can make to fight obesity. Transport policy almost completely ignores health issues. Join obesity platform
- Address these observation in the upcoming green paper on urban transport
- Use the upcoming fuel taxation and pricing proposals to make serious steps towards real cost internalisation. If we do not address this issue than other efforts will be largely in vain.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope I have been able to communicate that the current way the EU addresses rail has not made best use of its strengths, and in particular that intermodal passenger transport has too easily be forgotten. We that future rail policy will play better to the sector’s strengths and avoid wasting public money.