EU Year of Rail sign on train

View from Brussels: Europe’s train of thought

Image credit: European Union 2021

2021 is the ‘European Year of Rail’, according to the EU, which wants to remind people how great trains are when choosing how to get around. However, rather than showing that, Brussels is inadvertently reminding us how complex train travel can sometimes be.

The jewel in the year’s locomotive facilities was unveiled last week in Lisbon, when a special ‘Connecting Europe Express’ pulled into the station in Lisbon, ready for a month-long trip through most of the EU’s member states.

After 20,000 kilometres and 26 countries, the train should pull into station in Paris on 7 October. The idea is to show people how connected Europe is and demonstrate the green credentials of train travel, at a time when clean transport is sorely needed.

According to EU transport commissioner Adina Valean: “Over the coming weeks, the Express will become a rolling conference, laboratory and forum for public debate on how to make rail the transport mode of choice for passengers and businesses alike.”

“Rail has shaped our rich, common history. But, rail is also Europe’s future, our route to mitigating climate change and powering economic recovery from the pandemic, as we build a carbon-neutral transport sector,” she added.

It is also proving to be an opportunity for the notoriously-fragmented market and the operators that jealously guard their part of the rail pie to come together for once and collaborate on one project.

For at least some of the journey’s legs, the train will be made up of a sleeper wagon provided by Austria’s rail company, passenger carriages from Germany and Switzerland, an Italian dining car and a French conference wagon.

But a quick glance at the indicative route the ‘express’ is taking shows the problem that rail travel is facing in Europe. One legacy problem that is unlikely to ever change is track gauge: the train will have to negotiate three separate track widths on its mammoth journey.

Another issue clear from the route map is that only 23 of the EU’s member states are going to get a visit from the train. For a project with ‘connecting Europe’ in the title, it is a point that stands out quite prominently

Ireland, from a logistics point of view, is not included as it has no direct connection to the European mainland – a status that is unlikely to change any time soon, despite UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s dream of connecting the island with Britain.

The same is true of Cyprus and Malta, island nations which unlike Ireland, actually have no actual rail to speak of. The UK is also not included – mostly because of Brexit, but also because only specialised trains can run through the Channel Tunnel rail link.

Finland is also not on the itinerary as its rail link with Sweden has only recently been resurrected after 30 years of inactivity. A planned undersea rail connection with Estonia could be built, at a cost of some €9 billion, but would only be ready some time after 2030.

The express route’s focus on the dense networks of north-western and central Europe has also drawn criticism, as it will not visit either southern Spain or Italy. Most of the countries seeking EU membership in the Balkans are also bypassed.

Most of these decisions can be put down to lack of infrastructure, a tight schedule and having to negotiate normal rail traffic, but it does demonstrate that putting rail in a position to compete with short-haul aviation will need immense effort.

The EU’s mighty ‘fourth railway package’ – a set of rules designed to open up and liberalise the bloc’s networks – was phased in from 2016 and should have been completely written into national laws by the end of 2020. In some cases, governments are still dragging their feet.

Sparking competition has begun to pay off though: France’s national operator recently started high-speed services between Barcelona and Madrid, which its Spanish equivalent had a monopoly over. Lower ticket prices are already on offer.

In other areas, the rules still either need time to kick in or are not quite having the desired impact. EU law does not dictate what track access charges need to be levied on operators, which has led to a difficult life for another train option: sleeper services.

Austria’s rail company, ÖBB, has spearheaded a night-train renaissance of sorts, with a host of new routes unveiled and millions of euros spent on new wagons. The firm hopes to capitalise on a new post-Covid appreciation for slow, green travel.

But there are still hurdles: ÖBB has called for a new low-cost category for track charges to be put in place to spur more sleeper services, as well as a VAT exemption for international train journeys. That perk is currently enjoyed by airlines.

Night-trains are by no means an easy nut to crack. Sweden’s government last year launched a tender for services linking its cities with Hamburg and Brussels. Last month, only the Hamburg route received any offers.

The Brussels option reportedly failed to attract any takers as the journey would be too long to fit into existing timetables and a lack of subsidies or exemptions in countries on the route – especially Belgium and Germany – meant it would not be a viable service.

In this case, even support from a government with plenty of resources was not enough to fire up the locomotive. A lack of rolling stock also killed the idea before it had even left the station.

People want trains though. If governments, with a bit of cajoling from the EU, can sort out tricky issues like timings, shared ticket platforms and, probably most importantly, ticket prices, there is almost limitless potential for rail to make transport better.

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