Is there hope on track for Europe's railways with the new mandate?



Picture of Jon Worth
Jon Worth

Political Blogger and Campaigner, #CrossBorderRail Project and 2012 European Young Leader (EYL40)

As newly elected MEPs contemplate their first trips to Brussels and Strasbourg after the European elections, a few of them might take a moment to pause and think about the environmental impact of the trip they are about to take. For most of them – even those from neighbouring France and Belgium – they will book themselves flight tickets -the first of dozens of flights during their time as MEPs.

While the fear among environmentalists is that the EU’s action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the wider Green Deal agenda, could reverse with a more right-wing European Parliament and Commission, there is one sector where, even in the past five years, the EU has failed to make any significant environmental progress: transport. It is the only sector of Europe’s economies where CO2 emissions are up to 1990s levels.

Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, had understood the problem but had made no headway to fix it before returning to Dutch politics, so these issues are going to be high on the agenda of the next European Commission and Parliament.

Rail infrastructure stands underutilised, and with no passenger services at all in many places

EU action to decarbonise transport has to be two-fold – to electrify as much of our transport systems as swiftly as possible, and foster more environmentally sustainable modes of transport. In other words drive and fly less and take public transport, especially trains, more. As electric planes in everyday operation are some way off – battery production is resource intensive and the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells remains low – decarbonisation of transport without some change in user behaviour is not going to happen fast enough.

Despite naming 2021 as the European Year of Rail, and sending the Connecting Europe Express, a publicity train, around the continent, progress in the past five years to strengthen passenger and freight railways has been thin.

During my #CrossBorderRail project in the past two years, I have witnessed the underutilisation of rail infrastructure across Europe. From the land border at the north of Sweden to Finland, to the frontier between Spain and Portugal, or between Greece and Bulgaria, it is the same story. Rail infrastructure stands underutilised, and with no passenger services at all in many places. This is not just a problem of lack of investment, but also the egos of national, predominantly state-owned, railway companies that get in the way, a personal frustration that I hope the newly elected MEPs can help address.

MEPs from Catalunya contemplating a trip to Brussels via Paris can perhaps ask how the high-speed line between Figueres and Perpignan, designed or trains to run at 350km/h and built partly with EU money, has a miserable four trains a day each way on it throughout the year.

In the parts of Europe with a better service – from Germany to Strasbourg, for example – MEPs and their staff might instead wonder how it can still be so immensely complicated to book tickets EU-wide for trains. Outgoing European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Valean, was supposed to have proposed legislation to fix this issue but ducked the issue, faced with the lobby might of the national state-owned railway companies who simply want as little to change as possible.

The answer lies in finding ways to make more efficient use of railway infrastructure

And for those lucky ones who manage to get over the ticket hurdle a further headache comes if things go wrong – an absence of passenger rights in the case a journey involves multiple different railway companies.

By this point you are probably thinking: why would a European Parliament that leans more to the right care about this? The answer lies in finding ways to make more efficient use of railway infrastructure – to make sure more trains run, digitisation and coordination of ticketing both reduce staff overheads and increase rail’s appeal. And with motorways and airports creaking under the weight of passengers and freight, EU-wide, you do not even need to be pro-rail to see that this all makes sense.

So a new European Commissioner for Transport needs to propose a European masterplan for railways. This needs to avoid simply leaving member states to their own devices but needs clear and decisive action from EU level to identify gaps in infrastructure and to address them and even use legal sanction against laggards. The absence of trains suitable for international operation – especially night trains and long-distance passenger operations – can be addressed through coordination of procurement and would also benefit Europe’s struggling train manufacturers. But first and foremost, the European Commission has to start with ticketing and passenger rights – the low hanging fruit to make rail more appealing to customers.

Maybe, just maybe, a Catalan MEP might have a high-speed train to Brussels by the end of their mandate. German MEPs might be able to get to Strasbourg without ticketing frustrations. And taking trains cross-border might be as simple as taking one within one country. Regardless of your political colour, that ought to appeal.

This article is part of our European Elections #Voices4Choices campaign. Find out more here. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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