Trains for a green future — a possibility?

When we look at the world of trains, things seem to be picking up speed. Not just with the Green Deal, but also the European Commission’s 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 contributes 27% of CO2 emissions — will have to become zero-emission. Trains, which only contribute to 1% of transport-related pollution (compared to 71% for cars and 12% for planes), can make a valuable contribution to the fight against climate change.

The EU has called for a 90% reduction in transport emissions in the Green Deal that was adopted in 2019. The railways have a major role to play in this, because there is currently no greener mode of transport, especially when it comes to transporting a lot of people or goods over long distances.

Trains are responsible for only 1.5 to 2% of transport emissions (they account for 8% of passenger transport and 18% of freight). By contrast, road transport accounts for 71% of emissions, shipping for around 14% and aviation for a further 12-13%.

In the EU, we have been hearing about the need to shift to rail for decades, but little has actually happened until the Green Deal was adopted. “At the European level, there is more investment in rail than in the past. But we are seeing that now, not 25 years ago. There was a mantra of modal shift, but the investments have been in a different direction,” said Alberto Mazzola, president of CER (Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies), one of the main rail lobbies comprised of state-owned companies.

Do we really gain so much by not flying?

There is a lot of talk about the harmful habit of taking planes for short distances. But how much can we save if we were to take the train instead? If flights of less than 500 km were banned for environmental reasons, it would decrease transport emissions by just 0.5%. If we include night trains, which cover longer distances, the gains are not much greater. Flights that cover distances less than 1,500 kilometres accounted for 3% of the EU’s transport emissions in 2019, according to data from the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol). By contrast, routes over 4,000 kilometres account for 6% of all flights and 7% of all emissions.

Inside the EU’s ‘Connecting Europe Express’, a publicity train that travelled across Europe to commemorate the ‘Year of Rail’ | Photo by Laure Brillaud

Where real alternatives are being developed, many people are choosing to travel by train rather than by plane, with the best example being the high-speed rail link between Madrid and Barcelona. The train now carries around two-thirds of all passengers between the two cities. A recent study by Greenpeace found that of the 150 busiest air routes in Europe, only 51 city pairs can be reached by train in less than six hours. However, building high-speed railways generates a lot of CO2 emissions — an important factor that must also be taken into consideration.

Road freight is the most polluting sector

Road freight transport is much more polluting than aviation, accounting for about a third of emissions, and cars for about 45%. However, the EU and European governments are also very cautious in picking on this segment. Trucks are mainly produced by the German car industry, which has a powerful lobby in EU decision-making.

Road freight is much more polluting than aviation

“Unless there is a change of attitude from governments and the EU, and resources to back up the words, nothing will happen. I am thinking, for example, of the fact that road freight currently receives more than 30 billion forints (approx €82 million) in subsidies in Hungary, while rail freight will only receive 6.4 billion forints (€17 million) next year,” said Lajos Hódosi, president of the HUNGRAIL advocacy organisation, who said that at these rates, there is no chance of shifting freight traffic to rail.

Accordingly, three-quarters of freight transport in the EU is carried by road, while only 18% is carried by rail. It is no coincidence that the EU wants to shift 30% of road transport to rail by 2030, although it is not yet clear how.

All train lobbyists are declaring the same: the playing field is not levelled yet, which is a major problem. Kerosene is tax-free, road tolls are not high enough, air tickets within the EU are currently also exempt from VAT, just to name the most important inequalities. If the EU really wants to move towards a greener future by helping the shift from road (and air) to rail, it has to start with levelling the playing field.

Editing by Sindhuri Nandhakumar