All aboard!: With fuel prices on the rise, trains have become a more viable and sustainable mode of travel. However, due to longer travel times, high ticket prices and a lack of last-mile infrastructure, many Europeans still favour the plane or car over the train. What steps can the EU take to improve and facilitate European-wide railway transportation?

Committee on Transport and Tourism
Written by: Tommie Steenwinkel

Relevance of the Topic

For decades, European Member States have prioritised investments and improvements in road and air travel over railway travel. Consequently, the benefits that a good national and international railway system can have are not used optimally, even though it’s clear that railway travel is the most sustainable and eco-friendly transportation option when it comes to transporting European citizens and goods. A more functional and boundary-defying railway system can not only help in the fight against climate change by contributing to the European green deal. Moreover, with prices of fuels such as electricity, gas and kerosene rising, railway travel has also become relatively cheap and thus a more viable option compared to road and air travel.

Although in recent years the European Union has adopted four major railway packages and recently declared 2021 the European Year of Rail, switching from road to rail is still an ambitious concept rather than a reality. Member States have thus failed to fully implement changes such as introducing competition in the railway market by allowing access to private companies. Another core problem lies in the cooperation between Member States, instead of designing a unified European-wide railway system the construction and designing of railway infrastructure is mostly handled on a national scale. How can we get all European Member States on the same track to ensure a sustainable, affordable and accessible railway system for all European citizens?

Key terms and definitions

  • The European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS): is the system of standards for management and interoperation of signalling for railways by the European Union. The European Union aims to implement ERTMS across all European railway tracks to increase the interoperability of trains in the EU.
  • The Trans European Transport Network(TEN-T): is a planned network of roads, railways, airports and water infrastructure in the European Union. The TEN-T programme consists of a variety of infrastructure projects that ultimately aim to close gaps, remove bottlenecks and technical barriers, as well as to strengthen social, economic and territorial cohesion in the EU. TEN-T includes the ambition to create a Single European Railway Area (SERA).
  • Last-mile infrastructure: in the context of public transport, last-mile infrastructure describes the last leg of a passenger’s journey between the station and the passenger’s destination. If the distance between the station and the destination is too great, passenger’s may opt to travel by car rather than public transport.
  • Interoperability: is the ability of rolling stock to operate on any stretch of rail in the EU, no matter where they are. Currently, this ability is being hampered by lack of common infrastructure. Many Member States have their own standards, systems and equipment. Some Member States even have a different rail gauge, meaning the rails are either too wide or narrow for many trains to ride over.

Key Actors

EU Member States: are crucial actors when it comes to creating a future-proof European railway system. They are the ones responsible for building railway infrastructure and making sure the four railway packages adopted by the European Union are being executed. Some Member States do a better job at this than others.

The large train companies of Europe: like Deutsche Bahn and SNCF have extremely large concessions which some experts consider a nearly complete if not a full monopoly within their respective countries. While the fourth railway package adopted in 2016 tried to encourage these companies to have more competition with other commercial companies, there is almost never an even playing field. With the European railway packages in place, they should only be responsible for the operational part of rail traffic, not the infrastructure. In practice, many large national train companies are still fully or partially responsible for the infrastructure of rail traffic as well. 

The European Commissioner for Transport: is the member of the European Commission that is responsible for the planning and development of homogeneous transport policies and regulations across the Union, for the Trans-European Transport Network as well as for interoperation.

The European Rail Freight Association: is a non-governmental organisation that aims to achieve the best conditions for a competitive railway sector. Their mission is to promote rail transport as a first and viable choice for companies that want to transport European goods and to ensure full market opening of rail across all of Europe. 

The European Union Agency for Railways: is an EU agency with the mission of moving Europe towards a sustainable and safe railway system without limitations. Their tasks include things like improving railway safety, acting as the system authority for the ERTMS and improving accessibility and use of railway system information.

Key Conflicts

Technical and operational challenges

Currently, a Eurostar train travelling from London via France and Belgium to Amsterdam needs nine different train control systems. Even though the ERTMS tries to remove all these different operating systems into a standardised one, there are still many other technical and operational challenges. Some examples of this are railway control and command systems being specific to certain Member States, certain trains being only able to operate on their respective railway systems and train operators needing different certificates and diplomas to operate cross-border trains for every Member State they pass through.

Separation of wheel and track

Even though increasing competition in the railway sector has been on the European agenda since the 1990s, there is almost little to no competition between train companies in all of the European Member States. One of the main reasons for this is that many big train companies hold a large share of the railway infrastructure as well. Because of this, many railway tracks are only used by the train companies that own them rather than all train companies being able to use these railways. It is however important to note that changes made in the privatisation of the sector need to be well looked at because it has its downsides as seen in the United Kingdom for instance.

A lack of cooperation between Member States

Right now, the European railway system is a patchwork rather than a network. Changing that requires more cooperation between Member States. Some of the core problems are train services and websites only providing information and timetables on a national level and Member States being reluctant to invest in cross-border rail infrastructure because it won’t be commercially viable in the short term. Because of this, the goal of a Single European Railway Area with an international train ticketing website and functional international railway infrastructure is a concept rather than a reality right now.

Customer inconveniences

If we want to make travelling by train a viable and commonly used option, we need to make the customer journey as convenient as possible. A reason for customers to still choose travelling by plane over train is the price of a ticket. While plane tickets are exempt from value-added taxes (VAT), passengers that buy a train ticket often do have to pay the tax. Furthermore, many train tickets are still very expensive for the average customer because of the monopoly positions certain train companies hold. Although the EU would like Member States to open their railway market to competition, it has faced a lot of push back from many Member States, including the powerblock of France and Germany. Another cause for customers choosing the car over the train could be that there is a lack of good last-mile infrastructure to get customers to their designated places. Although some Member States have been experimenting with a bicycle service to make more destinations accessible, such as the Dutch OV-fiets, a lot of the time, even if there is last-mile infrastructure in place, many of these lesser-used train lines run at a very slow speed.

Measures in place

Europe has one of the most mature railway systems in the world when compared to other continents. Amongst other things, EU legislation has had a large impact on the development of the European rail network in recent years. However, despite initiating many projects and passing a lot of legislation, many projects were not completed fully or at all, and a lot of legislation is still not implemented. Thus, there is a lot of room for improvement.

  • The European railway packages, adopted between 2001 and 2016 with the aim of creating a Single European Railway Area, are a set of legislative packages with the aim of gradually opening up rail transport service markets for competition, making national railway systems interoperable and defining appropriate framework conditions for the development of a single European railway area. Some of the ways the railway packages try to achieve these goals are by implementing ERTMS across all European railway systems, creating a ‘one-stop shop’ for all European train services and trying to separate the train infrastructure companies from the train operating companies.
  • The fourth railway package, adopted in 2016, consisted of a ‘market pilar’ and a ‘technical pillar’ which aimed to complete the process of gradual market opening that started with the 1st railway package and boost the competitiveness of the railway sector by significantly reducing costs and administrative burden for railway undertakings wishing to operate across Europe.
  • 2021 was declared the European Year of Rail in order to demonstrate how trains can help the EU become climate-neutral by 2050. During this year, many new European railway projects were introduced to work towards a single European railway area like Rail Baltica that will connect Finland to Poland.
  • The Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) policy addresses the implementation and development of a Europe-wide network of railway lines, roads, inland waterways, maritime shipping routes, ports, airports and railroad terminals. The objective is improved use of infrastructure, reduced environmental impact of transport, enhanced energy efficiency and increased safety. It aims to double high-speed rail networks by 2030 and even triple them in 2050.

Food for thought

Even though the importance of European-wide railway transportation is addressed by many different actors, actual improvements in the European railway system are incremental and incredibly slow. What can the EU do to increase competitiveness on a national and international level and thus increase improvements in the railway sector? How can the EU encourage Member States to invest more in their national and cross-border railway systems? Aside from these economic issues, there are also many technical challenges ahead. What can the EU do to increase interoperability across all Member States? Lastly, what more actions can we take to persuade the individual customer to choose the train over other more polluting transport options?