Rail is one of the greenest modes of transport so having a higher share of passenger and freight journeys performed by train is fundamental for decarbonising the transport sector.

The potential of rail

The history of Europe can be seen through its railways. Despite its dense network, rail faces stiff competition and accounts for a minority of passenger kilometres. The EU aims to triple high-speed rail traffic by 2050, viewing it as pivotal for a more efficient transport system amidst urbanisation. Shifting passengers to rail is vital to meet climate targets, as it emits significantly less CO2 than road or air travel. 

Yet, rail underperforms due to national differences, regulatory hurdles, and market domination. T&E advocates for a sustainable, affordable, and customer-focused rail system to entice travellers away from less eco-friendly modes.

2x more expensive than air travel

93% CO2 saved on train Amsterdam-London compared to plane

Pricing and ticketing

Cheaper rail and easing the booking of cross-border and multi-modal journeys is critical for citizens to shift from air and road to rail transport.

T&E believes that the decarbonisation of the transport sector cannot be achieved without ensuring that clean transport solutions are affordable to all. Rail (like all public transport) plays a key role in providing basic, affordable mobility to people who have no access to individual transport modes.

But today, rail can be very expensive. It is often a barrier for families who wish to shift from road to rail and for travelers looking to opt for rail travel rather than air. Greenpeace recently looked at 112 connections in Europe and found that rail tickets are on average 2 times more expensive than air tickets.

T&E wants to correct the imbalance between transport modes by promoting the internalisation of external costs so that modes pay for the climate damage that they cause. This would ultimately narrow the ticket price gap between air and rail.

T&E welcomes the several initiatives in European countries to reduce the price of rail. In Spain and Germany (Germany recently introduced a €49 monthly ticket giving unlimited access to the country’s local and regional rail network) both governments have decided to strongly subsidize regional and local transport allowing citizens to shift from road to rail. In Belgium, the government has decided to bear the cost of track access charges and energy of night trains with at least one stop in Belgium.

Both the EU and Member States can help achieve a fairer pricing for rail by acting on the VAT, Track Access Charges (TAC), energy costs and station charges. In 2023, T&E and Back on Track found in their briefing that setting a 0% rate of value-added tax (VAT) on cross-border night routes and reducing the track access charges (TAC) can lower the ticket prices for night trains by between 3% and 48% depending on the passenger profile.

Facilitating the booking of cross-border and multimodal tickets

The European Commission has stated its wish to improve the research and the booking of cross-border and multimodal tickets (Multimodal Digital Mobility Services Regulation). To support the European Green Deal, this regulation must enable consumers to seamlessly combine low carbon transport modes such as rail and bus across borders. One of the barriers faced by consumers to travel cross-border by rail is the lack of ticket information shared by rail operators to booking platforms, forcing them to do burdensome multiple ticket bookings. This is particularly relevant to business travelers, who are increasingly looking for more sustainable travel options, but often encounter obstacles.

T&E thinks that the EU must mandate all rail operators to fairly allow independent bookings platforms to sell their rail tickets. This would facilitate the life of citizens when traveling abroad and would also allow rail companies to better fill their trains.

Night trains

Night trains allow passengers to shift from air to rail while sleeping.

European night trains are slowly making their comeback in Europe. They are one of the solutions to shift passengers from air to rail. Nevertheless, the night train business model suffers from structural and regulatory disadvantages compared to planes. As a result, it is often more expensive for passengers to travel by rail for the same distance, despite the low-carbon impact of this transport mode. Years of underinvestments have also reduced the comfort and the availability of rolling stocks.

T&E and Back-on-Track Europe have shown in their 2023 briefing how the EU and Member States can easily reduce the price of a cross-border night train ticket and push for the creation of new lines by reducing the value-added tax (VAT) and the track access charges (TAC).

T&E wants the EU to table a thorough strategy to facilitate night trains development to remove the interoperability barriers between Member States and reduce the cost of operating night trains.

Rail Freight

The European Commission has fixed the objective in its 2020 Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy to double the rail freight traffic by 2050.

Rail, by its small carbon footprint, and at the condition of strengthening its efficiency, is an accelerator of decarbonization of the freight sector. The more rail is used, the lower the effort to electrify road transport will be. On long distances, electrification for trucks is harder to achieve, whereas rail is particularly suited to cover these distances.

T&E managed a rail freight platform between 2015-2019. This platform provided us with the opportunity to meet with key stakeholders in rail and organise workshops to discuss some of the main setbacks to modal shift. We have learned a lot about why rail freight is not growing in Europe. These findings, as well as some stakeholder opinion pieces, can be found online at lowcarbonfreight.eu. This site offers some suggestions on how policymakers can play a bigger role in supporting modal shift as a means to decarbonise transport.