Analysis, European Union

European railways and the implementation gap

I was recording an episode of the Human Risk podcast with Christian Hunt this week – basically about humans and railways – and the conversation came back to what I think I ought to call the implementation gap in railway policy.

When I moved to München“, Christian was telling me, “I assumed I could make my business trips back to London by train – and then discovered all the shortcomings of international that you and plenty of others so often post about“.

We’ve all been there. Trying to plan a trip that ought to be easy, but for some timetabling or ticketing reason ends up with twenty browser tabs open and hours spent before a ticket is finally purchased.

That’s the micro level.

Then there is the macro level – what happens when we all want to go places and railways under perform. That means we all fly and drive too much, and the climate consequences of that are well known.

If there are two things close to widely held truths about international railways in Europe they are basically “international rail is too hard to use” and “we ought to all do it more, for the sake of climate”.

And the space between those two is the implementation gap.

It is about things like why is it not easier to buy a train ticket from München to London? Why does it take me 8 trains and 21 hours to go between rural Bourgogne and København? Why is there no night train between Köln and Warszawa? Why have trains between Mons and Aulnoye-Aymeries been cancelled for good?

Solving problems like these is hard work, and my work on cross border railways leads me to the conclusion that not many policymakers can really be bothered.

This past week I had a bit of a spat with Keir Fitch of DG MOVE of the European Commission at an event in Brussels where Fitch was saying that it is the European Commission’s job to set the legal framework for international rail – but that the Commission not have the resources to solve all the problems on the ground as it has only 30-odd staff working on the policy area. Keir is a decent chap, and I am sure he is doing his best, but this is not good enough.

The flip side of this is however good the legal setup is, the problems on the ground are not getting solved. Theoretically the framework is there to solve the Daugavpils – Turmantas problem described in my #CrossBorderRail Top 20 (it requires a subsidy for a few litres of diesel fuel every day) but de facto the problem is not being solved, as the train is still cancelled. There ought to be more than two trains a day on the Figueras-Perpignan high speed line, but there are not – and the connection there has worsened this month (drop from 4 trains a day to just 2 per day).

But whose career rises or falls as a result of this? What lever do us international railway travellers really have to get change to happen in these places?

After all when the Frankfurt – Bruxelles ICE train is a fiasco, the Transport Ministers Wissing and Gilkinet hold a party to give themselves a pat on the back rather than fixing the chronically unreliable route.

And perhaps, more cynically, we need to ask ourselves is there actually any political mileage in practically fixing these problems?

Back in January 2021 German weekly Die Zeit published a piece entitled “Die Retterin der Nachtzüge” (“Saviour of the night trains”), and the saviour was none other than Karima Delli, MEP from the French Greens and Chair of the Transport Committee in the European Parliament.

Delli’s ethics are sound (I met her during my #CrossBorderRail project), but what has she or the TRAN Committee in the European Parliament actually practically done to restore night trains in Europe? Nothing. Niente. Rien. There is zero in terms of legal framework, finance or operations that the EP has agreed to save night trains. Sure, politicians like Delli have helped to keep the debate about long distance passenger travel alive, but they must have been rolling their eyes at the ÖBB Austrian Rail headquarters in Wien when reading this (my translation) “[Delli’s] committee has put pressure on the EU Council of Ministers and ensured that night trains will run, for example, via Vienna and Munich to Paris from December, from Zurich to Rome from 2022, and later, for example, from Berlin to Paris and from Zurich to Barcelona.” These future night train routes are ÖBB’s initiative, with the financial backing of the Austrian state – and the Council and the EP have nothing to do with it.

But if you are a politician, and Die Zeit is writing that you are the saviour of the night trains, then it’s job done in communication terms – even if you have done practically and legally nothing to save night trains.

That then is the implementation gap. We need a massive step change in terms of political action and not just political communication – to solve the vast myriad of practical problems Europe’s cross border railways face. This is going to need a lot of hard work from politicians, better political leadership from the European Commission (ideally with a better European Commissioner for Transport from 2024 onwards), and plenty of uncomfortable conversations between political decision makers and railway companies.

One Comment

  1. I’m not sure if I am feeling heartened or disheartened that the same implementation gap and a communication/action gap exists here in the US. I think a major problem is that politicians (and humans, really) often look for short-term fixes and write-off long-term projects/policies as 1) being too expensive, or 2) not something they’re ready to go for (elections are always just on the horizon).

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