Home | Mobility | Nº 119 – What’s the problem with European railways?
Second part

Nº 119 – What’s the problem with European railways?
Second part

Second part

Saturday 25th December 2021.

Despite being a more environmentally-friendly alternative to airlines and road transport, Europe’s rail networks are underused. Today, a unified, European cross-border train network is more a fantasy than a reality. The reasons are many, ranging from decades of underinvestment over a ‘fortress’ mentality of national companies to liberalisation in the 90s. Here’s a guide to the many tracks one needs to navigate to understand the problem with European railways.

What’s the problem with European railways?

The current state of European railways is that of a patchwork, rather than a network. For decades, countries across Europe invested significantly more in roads rather than railway infrastructure, leaving it fragmented, under-used and most often: non-beneficial. In the past 20 years, 6,000 km of rail have been decommissioned. According to the Italian research centre Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, there are only 125 long-distance connections between EU states on a regular day. Despite promises, development of the core rail network in Europe is massively delayed, and construction of a uniform signaling system (ERTMS) has been stalled, with 90% of it yet to be completed.

The significantly higher investment into roads instead of rail contributed to the desolate condition of rail infrastructure in Europe. The total amount of money invested in rail infrastructure in the EU, the UK, Norway and Switzerland between 2000 and 2019 was €843 billion, while €1,341 billion was given to road infrastructure investments.

Big national rail companies are not making things easier. Even though the EU encourages them to compete in different national markets, many of them don’t. They opt for a monopoly over domestic connections and a “non-aggression” pact with each other, as insiders have told IE. According to a recent Greenpeace report, only 51 out of the 150 busiest short-haul flights in the EU have train alternatives under six hours. Additionally, passengers have to navigate a number of different timetables, websites and ticketing systems, making it extremely cumbersome to book a train journey from one European city to another. Meanwhile, European governments in the Council of the EU are doing their best to ensure that there is no common ticketing system between different railways networks.

Are trains really the greenest mode of transportation?

Well, yes. Globally, 75% of transport emissions come from road vehicles, while a mere 1% comes from railways. The rail network is well suited to renewable energy because it has a constant energy demand. For example, in Europe, the electrified network of Austrian Railways (ÖBB) is powered by 100% renewable energy, largely from hydroelectric power plants (Ökostrom). The German railway (Deutsche Bahn) network had a renewable energy share of only 40% in 2014, which increased to 60% by 2020, with a target of 100% by 2038. This shows that a zero-emission target for rail is realistic.

Meanwhile, in the aviation industry, low-cost airlines with new fleets have lower pollution per passenger-kilometre compared to before, but are still three to four times more polluting than rail.

Do people even want to travel by rail?

Seems like it. Two out of three Europeans would support a ban on short flights to destinations that can be reached within 12 hours by train to help combat climate change, according to a 2020 poll by EUpinions. A majority of people in Germany (63%), France (72%), Poland (73%), Spain (80%) and the Netherlands (65%) want to take more night trains, at reasonable costs. On busy routes, wherever an investment has been made in high-speed railways (Madrid-Barcelona, or Milan-Rome, for example), more passengers tend to travel by rail rather than by plane.


Report by Investigate Europe


Fotos: dpa ;ilustration: Investigate Europe

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