View from Brussels: Rail travel builds up steam but challenges remain

Europe’s train network is getting larger, quicker and more environmentally friendly, night-trains are back with a bang and Germany even wants to resurrect the Trans-Europe Express. Yet there are still plenty of leaves on the line that risk wrecking the rail renaissance.

The coronavirus outbreak has had a devastating cooling effect on air travel demand, prompting many in the aviation industry to wonder what exactly the future holds. Conversely, it has made rail operators more bullish about their own role in long-distance transport.

Ministers from 25 European countries (not included: the UK) signed a declaration in June pledging to improve cross-border rail travel, citing the environmental benefit of getting more people to choose the train for journeys of up to 500 miles.

Earlier in September, Germany put a little more meat on those bones and suggested reviving the Trans-Europe Express (TEE) concept of international trains, which ran between the 1950s and 1990s, but which was phased out due to lack of interest and, consequently, of revenue.

Austria and Switzerland’s train firms are leading the way in bringing overnight services back to Europe’s timetables. By 2024, their alliance wants to link Vienna and Zurich to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Rome.

“This development is sustainable and the demand for environmentally friendly and resource-saving mobility will continue to grow,” said Vincent Ducrot, head of Swiss rail.

The EU is planning to make 2021 the ‘European Year of Rail’, which should raise the sector’s profile even further. The bloc’s 27 members have been encouraged to spend coronavirus bailout money on improving rail infrastructure.

On the face of things, Europe seems intent on making the train king of cross-continent travel or at least putting it on a level playing field with short-haul aviation. There is a hitch: several, in fact.

Germany’s Trans-Europe Express 2.0 idea relies heavily on incumbent rail companies - such as Deutsche Bahn, SNCF, Trenitalia - agreeing to cooperate with each other in voluntary alliances and allocate rolling stock to the new services.

However, the original TEE collapsed largely because national rail firms put their own interests first and the notion that they will now collaborate with one another - without the necessary incentive, anyway - is a little far-fetched.

EU rules on market liberalisation are starting to bite - France’s SNCF will soon start operating routes in Spain - but the barriers for new entries are still formidable, especially in the wake of the virus crisis.

Established firms have, or will, receive state support running into billions of euros, but private ventures will largely be left out in the cold - similar to the situation seen in the aviation industry.

Cost for operators is one thing; cost for passengers is another. For many, the gap between the price of a no-frills plane ticket and a train ticket is still too high, even if increasing numbers of passengers are willing to put up with the longer journey time.

Rail advocacy groups want train companies to be more transparent about their pricing systems, to share their data openly with other firms and not to stand in the way of through-tickets which are valid for multi-leg, cross-border trips.

The nitty-gritty of the rules that underpin train travel in Europe is currently up for negotiation between EU lawmakers and diplomats. The bloc’s passenger rights codex is being updated, but countries remain split on issues such as compensation and even the number of bike spaces that should be guaranteed on every train.

Another issue standing in the way of rail’s comeback is infrastructure. In the UK, the debate about HS2 is well-known, but across the Channel big projects are also proving to be divisive for many of the same reasons. 

High-speed lines linking Scandinavia to Germany and Denmark, as well as Poland to the Baltics, are over budget and behind deadline, while the environmental impact of tunnels under the Alps is also a major sore point in Italy, France and Austria.

The EU’s auditors warned earlier in the summer that governments have to put more thought into these ‘mega-projects’ or risk souring taxpayers on the merits of sustainable mobility. Most of the big plans for rail rely on the train network growing, removing bottlenecks and connecting isolated areas.

EU diplomats are cautiously optimistic that a spat over the governance of the Eurotunnel after December’s Brexit transition deadline passes will prove to be nothing, although plans are being made to try and mitigate any potential disruption.

Trains are an easy way to score political points for Europe’s decision-makers, as most people at least claim to love them. Ensuring trains provide a decent service and tapping into rail's huge potential remains a very tricky business.

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