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Nº 118 – Derailed – how EU states are sabotaging European rail

Saturday, the 18th dezember 2021.

2021 has been proclaimed as the “Year of the Railway” by the European Commission. A „Europe Express“ trip taking in 100 cities and towns between Portugal, Slovenia and France was supposed to promote a new era in European rail. Yet the PR tour turned into a disaster. The promotional train demonstrated the the EU governments’ failure in railway policy. The journey through 26 states and across 33 borders required no fewer than 55 locomotives. For on Europe’s railway tracks, nothing really fits or connects with each other.

Strange that, when EU politicians fall over each other when it comes to emphasising the significance of the railway in reaching climate goals. Marking the departure of the special chartered train EU transport commissioner Adina Valean said: „The railway is our future, our way to deter climate change and to build a carbon-neutral transport sector.“ The European Commission’s head of the climate portfolio, Frans Timmermans, warns: „We have to restrict short-haul flights and make trips under 500 kilometres climate neutral.“ And this spelled out „more trains“.

Adina Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport, photographed in the Connecting Europe Express at Oriente Station in Lisbon, Portugal on September 2, 2021.

Over the past months the „Investigate Europe“ news agency has been researching why despite decades of planning and announcements the European railway is but „an ineffectual patchwork“, as the recent verdict given by the European Court of Auditors puts it. The responsible parties, the report said, were lacking in cooperation.

Why do things have to be this way? Why can’t passengers in Europe simply purchase a ticket from Lisbon to Berlin online? Why are there hardly any night trains left that could serve to replace flights? Who benefits from the decades of neglect that the railway network has suffered? And how serious are the responsible parties in their promises of changing things?

The results are sobering:

  • A data analysis reveals that EU states are still investing significantly higher amounts of money in road over rail.
  • Over the past 20 years 6,000 kilometres of railway tracks have been decomissioned.
  • Since 2001, the EU has been using several official guidelines to try and create a common European railway market, with shared technology. Yet EU states are sabotaging the construction of a single shared signalling system. National railway companies are walling off their markets rather than offering cross-border connections.
  • Investigate Europe managed to document several examples of so-called non-aggression pacts between national railway corporations, where the companies agree a peaceful coexistence, thus avoiding competition that would lead to an increased range of services for customers.
  • Railway firms operating across Europe are still ordering trains that can only be deployed on their national railway networks. These trains are completely unsuitable for use in cross-border circulation.
  • EU states are using new regulations to try and protect their markets. In several EU states train drivers have to speak the local language to an advanced level to be allowed to drive international trains. There is no standard language regulation such as you have in place in aviation.
  • At EU Council level, Germany and France have systematically been blocking a legal initiative aimed at providing passengers with more rights. This leads to the fact that passengers to this day have no website at their disposal where they would find all time tables and ticket options for a trip through Europe.
  • Over the past decades the railway companies have been cutting their night train options nearly everywhere in Europe without providing an alternative. This at a point in time where these are urgently needed to replace flights.
  • Instead of financing projects that would immediately improve the situation of a European railway network the EU states are still investing billions in inefficient prestige projects, was the verdict of the European Court of Auditors. In talks with Investigate Europe auditors levelled sharp criticism at „uncoordinated work“.
  • With long-distance transport in particular the pressure is on railway companies to generate profit above anything else. This leads to absurd results. For the 600-kilometre stretch between Lisbon and Madrid, passengers currently have to change trains three times and spend some eleven hours on trains.

You’ll find the results of that research here in our ECO123 online edition Saturday week.

Alexia Barakou

Reportage and test by Investigate Europe Berlin-Lisboa-Madrid, illustrations by Alexia Barakou, Photos: dpa


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