In March 2020, the European Commission announced that 2021 was to become the European Year of Rail. This initiative was supposed to help make rail a more popular alternative to less sustainable modes of transport and step up the pace of railway modernisation. It appeared to be a timely initiative, given the scale of transport emissions and the magnitude of emission reductions targeted by the Commission in the light of the Green Deal. Just a few weeks later, however, the first wave of lockdowns set in motion a process that would ultimately derail the vast majority of the Year of Rail. Can all blame be deflected to the virus, or did the effects of the pandemic merely highlight the deficiencies of the original proposals?
The Commission’s first publications concerning the European Green Deal paid surprisingly little attention to transport. If the EU is serious about cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, transport should be a key point of focus. Emissions in the EU were cut by more than 24% between 1990 and 2019, but transport emission actually increased by a third in this same period.
Equally significant differences in emissions are present within the transport sector itself, however. In particular, trains are responsible for only 1% of the EU’s total transport emissions, even though they account for around 8% of passenger transport and almost 19% of freight traffic. From the perspective of emission reduction, shifting transport from aviation and road to rail is therefore a no-brainer.
Early Warning Signs
Put simply, the Year of Rail promised to do two things to help make the transition to rail a reality. The first was the launching of a PR campaign. In cooperation with Member States and the railway industry, the EU would organise events aimed at highlighting the importance of the railway sector, particularly in the light of the Green Deal. Some of these events will actually take place this year, albeit with a significant delay due to the pandemic. For example, the Connecting Europe Express, a train which will travel across 26 different countries and will be supplemented by debates and panel discussions in many of the cities which the train passes through.
But in order to convince the public to opt for the train over cars or planes, good PR is not enough. Trains must be faster and cheaper to seriously challenge aviation’s near monopoly on international travel between Europe’s larger cities. Technological advances, if used effectively, can help cut back on travel times. Similarly, the Commission hopes that its policy of introducing competition into the railway sector can drive down prices. But rail can only become a significant force in the international travel market if cooperation between Member States increases. In a 200-page report published in 2018, the European Court of Auditors highlighted that there is no European railway network to speak of. Rather, what exists is a patchwork of national networks which are insufficiently integrated, with little sign of improvements in the future. Many Member States have advanced plans for the development of High Speed Rail, but these are independent, national plans. A European platform for ticketing is also still lacking, meaning buying international tickets is often both expensive and difficult to do.
As EU-level coordination in the railway sector is still very limited, the onus was on the Year of Rail to make Member States work together to create a single European railway network. But the Commission has never gone beyond arguing that this is the moment for Member States to act. It has made no clear policy proposals, and even the debates so far have not focussed on the barriers that the development of a single European railway network faces.
Most notably, the grand opening of the Year of Rail was generally a drab affair. MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg – rapporteur for the Year of Rail – sketched an ambitious future scenario in which travel by rail had become a mode of transport which not only moves citizens from A to B but also brings them together in an intercultural exchange. The ensuing panel discussions all but destroyed any optimism she had instilled in the few listeners the event had managed to attract, as panellists offered few solutions other than that ‘much more work needs to be done’. As the Commission still spends 50% of transport cohesion funding on roads, compared to less than 25% on rail, it is indeed clear that a lot needs to change before the transition to rail can become a reality.
COVID Reveals Members States’ True Colours
Modernising tracks, trains and ticketing systems is expensive, and thus requires financial commitment not only from the EU, but also on a national level. If the Commissions’ failure to prioritise spending on rail and put forward concrete policy objectives were not enough to make the Year of Rail grind to a halt, the national choices made in the wake of the pandemic certainly drove the final nail into its coffin.
Pre-COVID, Transport Commissioner Vălean argued that ‘The European Year of Rail (…) comes at an appropriate time, when the EU needs this kind of collective undertaking’. Her words now have a prophetic ring to them. As borders were closed and mobility plummeted, the mobility sector was scrambling to survive. Operators of all modes of transport turned to public support to stay afloat. If ever there was a moment to make a statement of intent, this was the one.
From rail’s perspective, the outcome has been a disaster. Member State governments have provided an incredible total of €36 billion in support for the airline industry. But as airlines received billions, the rail industry was left fighting for scraps. So far, it has received around €7 billion in support: less than one fifth of that allotted to airlines. As a result, operators around the continent are scaling down. Even Eurostar, a prime example of the modern rail that the Commission wants to realise, faced serious financial difficulties and struggled to receive any government support for over a year.
The Winner Takes All
So why are Member States prioritising aviation over rail in their bailout packages? The primary argument for doing so is the same in every country: the national economy relies on the industry. For example, the Dutch government argues that if KLM were to decrease in size, the Netherlands would lose its attractive position as a destination for companies to establish international branches, with all due effects for public employment.
These arguments highlight the importance of the Year of Rail. If aviation continues to maintain its position at the core of national economies, a modal shift will be impossible to achieve. Without a modal shift, many of the Green Deal’s climate targets are unattainable. It is for good reason that in their outline for the Year of Rail, the Council and the European Parliament stated that a key objective is to ‘enhance the contribution of rail to the Union’s economy, industry and society’.
If government bailouts are anything to go by, Europe’s national governments do not feel the same way. More than anything, the Year of Rail has so far displayed just how weak the position of the European railways really is. If Member States do not support their railways adequately, the importance of rail for national economies will only decline, further weakening any incentive to invest in it.
Towards a Decade of Rail
The Union faces a serious challenge in convincing governments to break out of this vicious cycle, in which the airline industry will only rack up greater support in the future. The Year of Rail offers an opportunity to do so, but so far the Commission has flattered to deceive, focussing on a limited PR campaign rather than any ambitious policy proposals. The pandemic may not have helped, but there is little to indicate that the Commision even intended to do more than is currently happening. Given rail’s importance for the future of the continent, a Year of Rail is probably not enough in the first place. What is required is a decade of rail: a decade in which Europe’s railway network is developed from an ineffective patchwork to an integrated, efficient and affordable transport solution for all.