Rail transport can be a major contributor to the EU’s climate ambitions, but only if the years of neglect are reversed. Let’s use the European Year of Rail to make that happen, says Martina Michels. The COVID-19 outbreak has undoubtedly affected the entire EU, particularly impacting transport and connectivity.
Yet why should we not talk about the railway of the future right now? The European Year of Rail 2021 (EYR 2021) presents us with the ideal opportunity. The objectives of EYR 2021 are closely linked to the need for decarbonisation.
The European Green Deal sets the EU’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050. Creating and improving environmentally friendly and energy efficient modes of transport must be an integral part of this strategy. With transport accounting for a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, rail can play a crucial role in achieving this goal. Furthermore, sustainable mobility would need to see a significant shift of inland freight carried today in Europe to rail and inland waterways.
“It’s not that people don’t like travelling by train; commuters depend on rail transport, and for young people it has been an opportunity to discover Europe”
Theoretically, most intra-European passenger flights could also be shifted to rail. Expanding and making European rail affordable as part of a transport transition away from aviation will make an essential contribution. Beyond the environmental aspects, rail transport plays an important role for regions and municipalities.
Better connections could support social, economic and territorial cohesion. Investments in infrastructure, modern, comfortable and environmentally friendly rail can make travel and transport more attractive and support sustainable tourism. This would also serve to maintain and create quality, sustainable jobs.
Cross-border rail connections can bring citizens closer and enable them to explore the EU in all its diversity and cultural richness. EU funding policies can contribute to improving cross-border rail networks, linking major cities with less developed and rural regions as well as border areas. At the same time, the success of cohesion policy itself is largely dependent on access to public transport - including railways - for example in sustainable tourism, development of the circular economy and SME networks, maintaining cultural heritage or promoting social inclusion.
Providing money to individual projects in the hope that employment and productivity will increase for a whole region is insufficient. Holistic development strategies are key to strengthening essential sectors such as health, education and transport altogether and will inevitably include public infrastructure, service and employment.
However, when I ask constituents for their opinion on rail transport, what I hear first are inevitably harsh complaints about delays, cancellations and poor customer service; about high prices and inadequate infrastructure, including closed and abandoned stations.
Entire regions - particularly rural areas - have been cut off from any public transport, while capacities in cities are exhausted. Railway companies have cut night-train connections, arguing they are less profitable in times of extremely cheap short-distance flight offers. Of the 365 cross-border rail links that once existed in Europe, less than two-thirds remained operational in 2018.
Only eight percent of all passenger travel in Member States remains on railways. It’s not that people don’t like travelling by train; commuters depend on rail transport, and for young people it’s often an opportunity to discover Europe. Cross-border freight transport is often hampered by incompatible infrastructure or cumbersome customs procedures, while trucks congest cross-border highways. Environmental awareness, too, is a reason to give rail transport precedence over individual modes of transport. Disappointingly, the offer does not meet the need.
Increasing prices exclude many from what has long been viewed as a public service. Where services and materials deteriorate, this also affects safety. Many of these developments of dismantling public transport are based on privatisation and fiscal austerity, euphemistically called “Schuldenbremse” in German. Liberalisation has not been able to sustain the promise of good, universal and affordable rail connections for all, nor has it helped maintain good jobs. Restoring and modernising European railway systems to the required level may end up costing us twice as much as having kept it in public ownership.
“Of the 365 crossborder rail links that once existed in Europe, less than two-thirds remained operational in 2018”
This campaign can only be a good first step. It can bring together stakeholders - EU institutions, Member States, regions and municipalities as well as railway companies, passenger associations, employee representatives, consumer and environmental protection organisations. We must EYR 2021 to prepare good solutions together that include the reactivation and expansion of local and regional rail routes and small train stations and investment in physical and digital infrastructures.
We must also invest in universal and better-quality services, including central booking systems and perhaps an EU-wide customer card; good and healthy employment conditions in the transport sector during and beyond COVID-19 times; and the reintroduction of night trains.
The Left in the European Parliament rejects the primacy of competition. Capital market viability has proven unsuitable for public services of general interest. Much has to be done for rail transport to become a real and inclusive alternative again.