European Commission’s new action plan promises to strengthen railways

Christmas is a time of wishes. The Commission has just presented a long list of wishes in its new action plan, entitled ‘Strengthening long-distance and cross-border passenger trains’. In the 18-page communication sent to the European Parliament and the Council, accompanied by a 476-page report by the British company Steer, you can see what the magical world of trains will look like by 2050. By that time, transport — which produces 27% of total CO2 emissions — will have to be reduced by 90%. Trains, which only pollute 1% (compared to 71% for cars and 12% for planes), can make a valuable contribution to the fight against climate change.

But today, only 6% of passengers and 18% of freight travel by train. Something has gone wrong with the plans of the European Commission, which 20 years ago, repeated the mantra “from road to rail” at the top of its voice, but then financed motorways galore and greenlit favourable tax policies for low-cost airlines. There are several culprits in this colossal fiasco, such as the railway giants — especially in France and Germany — which boycotted the railway packages and the opening up of their markets to European trains. Then there is the ‘liberalisation mentality’ of the railway companies, which in many countries have remained publicly-owned monopolies, but now think in terms of profit and not public service. Investigate Europe has listed all the causes of the failure of European trains in its recently published investigation, ‘Derailed’.

Now, the Commission is trying to take action. At the end of the “European Year of the Train”, as 2021 has been dubbed, and at the end of a long rail journey through 26 European countries with the dazzling “Connecting Europe Express” — which showcased more weaknesses of the system than the advantages of travelling by train — come the proposals. Or rather, here come the promises of proposals that will hopefully follow in 2022.

Making cross-border travel easier

New regulation for cross-border tickets will be proposed, so that those who miss a connection do not have to buy various tickets with different service providers separately, as many are required to do today. With regard to technical barriers, which are often used to keep borders closed, states are already obliged by the fourth railway package to install the ERTMS common signalling system by 2050. Now, Brussels is, even asking governments to adapt their fleets by 2040. IE has documented how many countries continue to obtain authorisations from the European Railway Agency (ERA) for trains that can only run in certain countries, such as Deutsche Bahn’s new ICE 4s, with only one power system, which can only run in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, or the new Polish locomotives, designed solely for Polish tracks. Not to mention the Spanish attempts to enter the French market, adapting to the specificities of the French network, with the repeated obstacles from the TransAlpine authorities, the French manufacturer Alstom and the giant that controls both the trains and the network, SNCF.

“The Commission is at least showing its willingness to improve Europe’s rail system,” comments Jon Worth, activist and political consultant behind the ‘Trains for Europe’ campaign. Will the new approach of the European executive be enough, Worth asks? “We know that the devil in this case is the railway companies and the national governments —both with a conservative, national approach. “We all know what kind of things have to be done, but the member states are not willing to do them, and the traditional railway companies want to keep their business models unchanged.”

But, says Worth, “The proposal on multi-modal ticketing, if done right, could be really a major step forward.”

Language barrier

Brussels will also propose a simplified system for train drivers, seeking to ameliorate the current jungle of certificates and diplomas. But on the thorny subject of a common language — English — on cross-border trains, there is no commitment but a vague indication that a single language regime “could also” be proposed in the future. Today, a train driver must know the language of the country(ies) that the train is travelling through, at least at a B1 level. France has already said that it does not want to give up French on trains passing through France.

While the Commission is promising to crack down on states that do not comply with the rules, it is also offering new investment in trains. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is launching the “Green Rail Investment Platform”, inviting states to submit projects for cross-border rail connections that the European bank can finance. In addition to 15 pilot projects that the Commission would like to approve next year, it would also like to buy new trains and thus increase rail traffic. The Commission is also encouraging the expansion of night trains, through the EIB channel, as Commission director Kristian Schmidt had already announced in a webinar organised by Investigate Europe in November 2021 

In the Berlyamont building, work was also done on the fiscal front: “the Commission will study the possibility of a VAT exemption for international services,” reads the Action Plan, as is already the case for aircraft. This, together with the introduction of a tax on kerosene in aircraft, as announced in the “Fit for 55” package, should boost rail traffic. 

“It is an ambitious plan”, said CER, the lobby of railway company representatives in Brussels: “There is an urgent need to improve the competitiveness of rail transport and its infrastructure, both physical and digital.  In order to stimulate modal shift, the EU should create a level playing field for all modes of transport and equal treatment in energy taxation.” 

Tariff jungle of track access charges

On the other hand, the Commission’s proposal on harmonising track access charges is weak: it will present guidelines in 2023, while some countries, such as France and Germany, impose charges of as little as €20-30 per km, compared with €1.50/km in Sweden, and that a train stopping at a station in Paris pays as much as €900-1000 compared with €50 in Vienna. Perhaps simple guidelines will not be enough to put an end to this tariff jungle within a single market.

FlixMobility, which is investing more in trains, but whose core business remains buses, also insists on fair taxation. André Schwämmlein, FlixMobility founder and CEO said,“To win more passengers for sustainable collective transport with buses and trains, it’s necessary to ensure fair market rules as the prerequisite for more services. EU countries must draw from the successful example of Sweden where fair track access charges will allow us to provide more services, and attract more passengers to rail. At the same time, long-distance bus and rail travel, being equally sustainable and providing affordable services for millions of people, must also be taxed equally.”

“Rail traffic has also been hit hard by the COVID crisis with total losses of around €50 billion over the last two years,” explains CER executive director Alberto Mazzola. The airline industry has in fact received some €40 billion to compensate for losses due to the pandemic. The railway companies have not received as much.  

Moreover, although it is true that the national recovery plans approved by the European Commission are now clearly more in favour of trains than roads (in the Italian National Recovery Plan, €24 billion is earmarked for the railways as opposed to a timid €1.2 billion for road safety), with a total investment of 7.28% in favour of trains, it is also true that this is not the case in all countries: in France, €4 billion is earmarked for rail and €8 billion for aircraft, while Germany has planned €10 billion for the air sector and nothing for railways.

If 2021 was the year of promises and a new-found love of the train, 2022 must be the year of deeds, to convince more people to use the train. 

Jon Worth, however, doesn’t want to cultivate false illusions: “Let’s put it this way: Few people will take the Lisbon-Berlin or Paris-Bucharest train,” he says. “What we need to do is make sure that the routes where the train takes four to six hours — both domestic and international in Europe — are improved, and that rail’s market share is increased. On some routes, up to 800 km, it already works and prices have fallen.”.