European Year of Rail: From propaganda to reality

Portuguese MEP João Pimenta explains why he took undertook a 57 hour train journey from Lisbon to Strasbourg for the final EP Plenary session of 2021

By João Pimenta Lopes

João Pimenta Lopes (PT, The Left) is a member of the European Parliament's Transport and Tourism (TRAN) Committee

31 Dec 2021

This month marks the end of European Year of Rail 2021. A year that saw a tremendous amount of propaganda on the use of rail transport and its potential role in decarbonisation, such as the replacement of short-distance flights (less than 600km) by trains, the use of railways for territorial cohesion, and for international connections.

The need to promote greater use of the train as a means of transport is indeed real and fair.

But beyond this rhetoric, little was said about the consequences of four EU rail packages aimed at liberalising the sector. They take a strictly mercantilist view of rail transport, conditioning the operation to profit and favouring the concentration of operations.

Operations, it has to be noted, which are associated in some countries with decades of disinvestment policies and neglect by successive governments.

It was to highlight some of these facts, and the contradictions between propaganda and reality, but also to understand the challenges involved in increasing the use of rail transport, that I promoted several initiatives, culminating in a train journey between Lisbon and Strasbourg to participate in the December European Parliament plenary session.

The first difficulty I encountered was obtaining a proposal from the European Parliament’s travel agency, not for lack of diligence or willingness, but because today, in the digital age, it is, unfortunately, more difficult to obtain a ticket between European capitals than it was decades ago.

The cost of the trip is significantly higher than the same journey by plane: €398 one-way only (excluding accommodation costs), against €130 for a roundtrip by plane.

"It was to highlight some of these facts, and the contradictions between propaganda and reality, but also to understand the challenges involved in increasing the use of rail transport, that I promoted several initiatives, culminating in a train journey between Lisbon and Strasbourg to participate in the December European Parliament plenary session"

The journey took, given the current absence of international connections from Portugal, about 57 hours. The international connections from Portugal that were lost last year (with the pretext of the pandemic) would have allowed this connection to Strasbourg in a fraction of the time.

The Sud Express, created in 1887, which once connected Lisbon with London with a connection to Hendaye in south western France, would have made it possible to travel to Strasbourg from Lisbon in just over 22 hours.

The closure of this connection represents a setback of 130 years, with no perspective of a replacement for the time being. Governments and railway authorities on both sides of the border push responsibilities from one to the other.

The absence of any provision for that service between the Portuguese government and the national operator leaves the door open for the entry of so-called “white brands”, large European railway giants such as Germany’s DB, France’s SNCF, Italy’s Trenitalia or other private operators.

The border crossing with Spain was made between Elvas and Badajoz, after a three hour journey with a diesel locomotive from the 1950s at an average speed of 60 km/h.

And this is a connection that, as a result of the 'harmonising' process of the railways in the EU, could well be compromised as of 1 January 2022, given the obligation for Portuguese train drivers to operate at  Spanish language level B1 in Spain (and vice versa), imposing constraints through bureaucracy that didn’t prevent operations in the past.

"The journey took, given the current absence of international connections from Portugal, about 57 hours. The international connections from Portugal that were lost last year (with the pretext of the pandemic) would have allowed this connection to Strasbourg in a fraction of the time"

Other similar examples highlighting the complexity of the operation through bureaucratic ‘harmonisation’ can be provided. The solution for this one is to have an escort for a transition of a few hundred meters, making the operation more expensive and economically not viable, or, in the worst case, interrupting it before the border.

The railways were, and continue to be at European level; essentially a set of national systems that history has shown can interoperate among themselves.

The political objectives, often translated into technical guidelines, have determined a deliberate outcome: to break each of these systems into sections and to impose its reconstruction on a European scale, destroying national sovereignty over yet another strategic sector, and creating a system made for large multinationals.

Little was said throughout the past year on the thousands of kilometres of deactivated rail lines, or on the reduction and degradation of supply, or the thousands of jobs lost and the hundreds of stations closed down.

Equally underreported have been the consequences of the dismemberment of national operators separating operations, infrastructure and maintenance - with countries such as Germany or France not implementing such solutions despite the fact that they had promoted them through the successive rail packages).

"My trip to Strasbourg was a protest in the form of a journey, denouncing disinvestment in the railways, and the consequences of a liberalisation imposed from ‘Brussels"

The loss of productive capacity of rolling stock and technological knowledge is also a factor in several countries.

My trip to Strasbourg was a protest in the form of a journey, denouncing disinvestment in the railways, and the consequences of a liberalisation imposed from ‘Brussels.

A liberalisation aimed at concentrating the operation while, at the same time, compromising the fundamental role that the railways can and should play in territorial cohesion and in the economic and social development of each country.

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