So goodbye Thello. A strange open access rail operator, providing night trains on the Paris – Milano – Venezia route, and daytime trains on the Marseille – Nice – Genova – Milano route, suspended thanks to COVID, and, now we know, never to return. Cue activists writing disgruntled letters, and Mark Smith (Seat 61) doing his best to explain how to cross the border from France to Italy now with a much reduced service.
In other words, the infrastructure is exactly as it was. But now far fewer cross border trains will run. A marked worsening of cross border services between France and Italy.
But while Thello’s demise might get the headlines, cross border rail has suffered in some places throughout the pandemic, not least at the Croatia – Serbia border as I document here. But there is simply no way that you or I or Mark Smith can maintain an overview of all of what is happening, everywhere – and especially not an overview of what is changing either for the better or for the worse.
Only once we have a comprehensive understanding of what is happening can we begin to address it. This is exactly what the European Cyclists’ Federation did in a slightly different area, with its “Cyclists love trains” report – it produced a kind of ranking of what works, where, and why.
The best data we have about these sorts of issues comes from a one-off March 2018 report written for the European Commission entitled “Comprehensive analysis of the existing cross-border rail transport connections and missing links on the internal EU borders” (PDF here) that provides a kind of snapshot of the state of affairs:
Green: regular passenger services
Yellow: freight or tourist trains only
Red: no trains
Even the red marks on this map are somewhat problematic – in some cases the tracks still exist and are in working order, but no trains run, while in others the tracks are missing and complicated and costly renovation works would be necessary to rectify the situation.
So here’s an idea for the European Commission – perhaps in the context of the Shift2Rail project – why not make this an annual thing? An annual cross border rail index. Check each and every border crossing, each year, and rank them – in terms of infrastructure quality and service quality. Show where the situation is getting better, and where it is worsening. Use the places where a country slips in the rankings to up the pressure for change. Use the places where a country gains in the rankings to show what works well, to show an example to others. And the results of the index could also help work out where to target infrastructure investments to improve the situation.