The 2021 EU Year of Rail, this summer’s €9 regional train pass in Germany and the flying-less campaign all show an increased interest in rail travel, especially cross-border routes. From a climate perspective Europe’s demand for more environmentally efficient travel is very welcome, especially after several decades of aviation growth fuelled by the Single European Sky initiative, which created cheap airline tickets that made it easy to jet off on weekend city breaks.
Today consumers are demanding international rail services and night trains. However, railway operators have been caught flat-footed: they closed many international services and sold off their night trains because of the previous decline in sales. The notable exception is Austrian ÖBB, which has successfully created a commercial division specialising in international night trains.
Railway operators have been caught flat-footed: they closed many international services and sold off their night trains because of the previous decline in sales
Resuming night train services is no simple matter, even for established rail operators. They have to order rolling stock from manufacturers and subsequently apply to the European Railway Agency, which was empowered by the European Commission’s fourth railway package of 2016 to make the technical approval process easier, or the relevant national agency to get them approved for service.
New companies trying to capture the renewed demand for international night trains face similar hurdles. The cost of entering the railway market is high – especially the structural obstacles to finding appropriate locomotives and ordering new rolling stock from manufacturers in addition to getting access to tracks in multiple Member States.
These obstacles suggest it will be quite some time before rail companies, whether established or new, will be able to operate international routes and meet growing consumer demand.
Yet that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. This summer Jon Worth, a well-known EU railway activist and political analyst, travelled through the EU by rail. Often taking small and regional trains instead of the intercity services, he crossed 95 borders – almost every EU border you can cross by train – to research what the European Union could do to solve the issues plaguing international rail travel. Jon’s cross-border rail project demonstrates the need for investment in regional and cross-border services, both in terms of infrastructure and coordination of national timetables.
The current patchwork of national timetables serves national needs, since national rail services are the main source of income for many rail operators. Plus, given the headaches of setting up international routes, international rail services will likely remain a niche market. Therefore, we need better cross-border timetabling.
Coordinating national timetables in several Member States to establish international services running through three or more countries is like playing Tetris on the hardest level imaginable. Yet it is critical that railway operators put in the effort to collaborate closely, so that they can deliver on the demand for international services and night trains.
Coordinating national timetables in several Member States to establish international services running through three or more countries is like playing Tetris on the hardest level imaginable
Moreover, customers book their national rail tickets and airline tickets online, and they want an online booking system for their international rail journeys. The next step for rail operators is to expand their existing online booking systems to include international journeys.
Policymakers need to turn their attention away from grand political projects focused on building international high-speed rail infrastructure and instead look at upgrading existing rail infrastructure so that railway operators in the short to mid-term can respond to the new demand for international routes.
To support the creation of new international rail services on existing infrastructure, policymakers should also encourage rail operators to develop better online integrated ticketing services that allow passengers to travel between Member States and still be protected by EU passenger rights. Helping rail operators work together may not be as glamorous as a high-speed rail project, but it is no less ambitious.