‘Year of rail’ begins with call for cross-border rail to be boosted

Europe is still not making the most of its existing cross-border railways, and this must change before the EU puts more money into expensive new infrastructure projects. That is the conclusion of a new report into how to revitalise train travel in Europe, which has been published to mark the start of 2021 as the European Year of Rail.

Promoting rail, both for passengers and freight, has long been one of the EU’s stated objectives, but in reality international rail connections are declining. Despite a series of railway legislative ‘packages’, billions in EU funding and timid attempts to boost rail’s user-friendliness, today’s system remains a patchwork of national networks rather than a European market.

The European Commission has designated 2021 the European Year of Rail to boost international rail and contribute to the European Green Deal. 

The report from Europe on Rail, a coalition of six NGOs including Germanwatch and T&E, paints a sobering picture. Rail accounts for just 8% of passenger transport, and international rail services are declining: of the 365 cross-border rail links that once existed, 149 were non-operational in 2018, and today not even all European capitals are linked by direct train services. 

T&E’s aviation and shipping campaigner Lucy Gilliam said: “Europeans demand green alternatives to flying and driving. The European year of rail is a chance to start building a truly European railway system. But governments need to resist the temptation to splash out on expensive new infrastructure and focus on low hanging fruits such as easy booking, modern technology and increased competition on international lines.”

Requiring rail operators to share all necessary data for the easy booking of international trips and the introduction of more direct routes, for example, would greatly improve rail transport without the need to splurge on new high-speed routes. Other important features of a smart railway policy include investments in IT solutions such as a European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and opening up parts of the market to competition, the report says.

The European Year of Rail rail coincides with Covid pummeling rail budgets across Europe with passenger numbers falling significantly due to travel restrictions. Economic recovery plans, generously funded by the EU, are currently being drafted in most EU countries. These plans should cover international connections, which serve 8% of rail passengers in the EU, but also domestic services such as commuter rail and intercity lines.  

Gilliam concludes: “The recovery funds offer a chance to boost zero-emission transport and rail has a big role to play. But not all rail spending is smart or sustainable, so governments will need to be selective. Upgrading commuter rail lines and deploying 21st century IT technology might not be as sexy as new high speed lines, but they do provide better value for money for the millions of Europeans who rely on rail every day.”