Derailed — The desolate state of European railways

Credit: Alexia Barakou

“From road to rail” has been the mantra of authorities across Europe for decades. The EU’s railway packages since 2001 were designed to open the railways to competition; to connect national railways to make them a coherent whole, and to bring much more freight and many more passengers onto the tracks.  

This has not happened. Less than 20% of freight is transported via rail. A fraction of international travel happens by train. It is more difficult to travel by railways through Europe today than it was before all these reforms. And the urgency for real change grows by the day: transportation is one of the major contributors of greenhouse gases. Climate neutrality — which the Eu aims to achieve by  2050 — is impossible without a major shift.

Investigate Europe has checked the status of European railways and searched for the reasons that plans and announcements have not come to life. Who blocks the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly means of transport for passengers and goods? Where has the money gone if not to the railways? Who profits from the situation? What is being done to shunt trains onto a better track?

Credit: Alexia Barakou and Reporters United

What did we find?

  • Our data analysis shows that EU states still invest significantly more money in road than rail.
  • In the past 20 years, 6,000 km of rail have been decommissioned
  • EU states have adopted several directives to create a common rail transport market, which should make the European rail systems interoperable. But in reality, national railway companies seal off their markets against each other instead of offering cross-border connections.
  • IE has found several examples of “non-aggression” agreements between national companies from different states —to avoid competition
  • There is still no uniform signalling and control system in Europe.
  • National companies order trains that can only be used on national networks.
  • States are even enacting rules to protect their markets. For example, locomotive drivers in several EU countries now have to speak the local language to be allowed to drive there.
  • To date, there is no way to check the journey times and buy tickets for a trip across Europe on a single website. There was an EU legislative initiative for this, but the German and French governments have systematically blocked it in the Council of the EU. 
  • Night trains have been cut down and it will be difficult to revive the system in an ad hoc manner now.
  • Instead of using the funds for projects that bring quick and major improvements, EU states are investing billions in inefficient large-scale projects, which the European Court of Auditors has harshly criticised. At the same time, citizens’ initiatives are mobilising against new railway lines.
  • Non-connectivity has led to absurd results: to cover the 600 km distance between Lisbon and Madrid, one has to change trains three times and travel for about 11 hours. It is one of the most popular flight routes in Europe
  • In Europe, only eight out of every 100 journeys is made by rail.  Eurostat figures show that international rail travel is nearly completely insignificant. 

Read more with our media partners and the exclusive website material listed below. This is an ongoing investigation so this list will be constantly updated.

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