View from Brussels: Rail travel gets New Year boost

Berlin and France will be linked by a high-speed rail service, Italy is cutting the journey times between its biggest cities and the EU says short-haul flight bans are legal, in what is a promising start to the year for train travel.

Supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion was the main theme of a meeting between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron this weekend, but other issues also made it onto the agenda.

Rail fans will be delighted to hear that the two leaders wholeheartedly back plans to link the capital cities of their nations by high-speed rail, which would theoretically allow travellers to reach Berlin or Paris within seven hours.

Currently, high-speed travel requires a change at stations such as Cologne or Frankfurt, padding the journey time out to more than eight hours. By regular intercity trains, the trip can take more than eleven hours.

Flights between the two capitals take just under two hours, but with transfers to suburban airports and waiting times factored in a seven-hour rail journey verges on competitiveness, especially given the less stressful nature of high-speed travel.

Ticket price will obviously dictate how much market share the direct service could take from short-haul airliners.

“France and Germany support the deployment of the high-speed train route between Paris and Berlin, as well as the night train service, both announced for 2024,” a joint declaration published at the end of the summit confirms.

The two state-owned rail firms – SNCF and Deutsche Bahn – said last year that they intended to launch a once-a-day direct service by December of this year, increasing it to a twice-daily service if the option proved popular.

Although the Macron-Scholz statement reveals that those plans have been delayed, the fact that the leaders of Europe’s two most influential countries have publicly backed the project means that its chances of actually happening have increased dramatically.

Their statement also confirmed that France and Germany will work on launching a youth ticket valid in both countries by the start of this summer. That mirrors other schemes such as the EU's DiscoverEU programme, which offers free Interrail tickets to successful applicants.

Last week, Italy’s state rail firm Trenitalia announced two non-stop daily services between Rome and Milan, with the first trains departing on their two hours and 45 minutes journey this week.

These new services depart from stations near the outskirts of both cities, allowing for a faster journey time and to attract workers and businesspeople who do not necessarily live in the centre of Italy’s two most important cities.

Both announcements are decent proof that train travel is getting more attention when it comes to planning transport policies, as consumer demand for greener travel becomes more influential.

Governments may soon start helping out rail firms to an even greater extent after the European Commission – the EU’s executive branch – recently gave the green light to France’s ban on certain short-haul flights.

As part of a big pandemic bailout of its state-owned airline, Air France, the French government said that certain domestic flight routes that are also served by train links should be scrapped.

Flights of up to two-and-a-half hours would fall under the proposal, which was criticised by airline and airport lobbies. The government had said that connecting flights were exempt but that was overruled by the Commission’s decision.

The ‘ban’ should only last three years, according to the same EU analysis. Whether it will be copied by other countries aiming to reduce air travel’s carbon footprint remains to be seen.

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