At one level the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is obvious: very green. This 2020 report (PDF) by the European Environment Agency puts some numbers on it, summarised in this graph:

I might quibble with some of the numbers here, but the overall picture is obvious. Like for like, take the train over the plane. And indeed don’t take the car if you are the only person in it.

The question is not whether rail is green. The question is whether rail is relevant. And how to make rail travel – Europe wide – much more relevant, and quickly.

It is on this point that, for the sake of the green transition in Europe, the continent’s railways are failing.

As Greenpeace has demonstrated, taking the train on intercity routes is often more expensive than flying. But does the railway industry care? No, not really. They might legitimately claim that aviation and automobiles have taxation advantages that they, the railways, do not have. But likewise the railway sector – on its own terms – is incapable of stepping up.

Take the Brussels-Paris route that I examine in detail here. You can increase capacity on that route by 186% (yes, almost triple the capacity) using existing infrastructure. And that would get a whole load of Flixbus services and cars off the roads. But Eurostar Group – operating the route with the behaviour of a private sector monopolist – has no incentive to up capacity and not enough trains to do so, and hence would sooner set sky high prices to profit maximise instead.

The French state railway company SNCF – the majority owner of Eurostar Group – is little better. It has let the size of its TGV fleet drop from 410 to 363 units between 2018 and today, aiming instead to increase the seat occupancy on each individual train rather than increasing rail’s modal share overall in France. And the company’s political masters – the French government – are more concerned by the financial results of the company than they are about modal shift to green transport modes.

Allrail and the European Passengers’ Federation might try to make the case that better ticketing, EU-wide, could help boost rail’s market share. In an ideal world they would be right – trains that were easier to book would mean more demand, more demand would mean new services would be launched, and then there would be a virtuous circle.

But we are so very far from that sort of feedback loop even being possible.

What has German railways done about an expected increase in demand on its already chronically unreliable international routes this summer? Introduced compulsory reservation just for the international part of the trip. Basically “we can’t cope with demand, so we are going to put a cap on the number of people who can travel”.

The argument made by the state railway lobbyists at Community of European Railways in Brussels regarding easing international ticketing hurdles is essentially this: why do we even need to make international booking easier, because our trains are full anyway? In a certain twisted way they are right – the trains are, mostly, full. Because capacity is limited. But then we are back to who is capable or willing to add capacity, and there it all falls down.

Increasing capacity has two dimensions. The first: is there sufficient capacity on the rail network to run the trains you might want to run? The second: if there is, how do you make sure those services do indeed run?

On both of these aspects, the record EU wide, is poor. The main rail corridors, Europe wide, are Trans European Networks – TEN-T. And the core network is due to be complete by 2030, but it absolutely will not be – as many Member States of the European Union have been sluggish getting their improvements complete, and the European Commission has not been determined holding national governments to account.

But that is only part of it. There are lots of parts of the European railway network – even modern infrastructure like the Perpignan – Barcelona high speed line for example – where there is ample extra capacity. But there are very, very few services running there. Here the railways seem stuck between the worst of state enterprise thinking, and private sector rent seeking. You could either with concerted political action, or with better efforts to foster competition, seek to solve these problems – but at the moment the infrastructure sits there underused.

So that is the challenge. A railway trip is green. But the railway sector as a whole in Europe – due to a combination of factors within the industry and political problems – is incapable of making a step change in terms of modal share. In the middle of a climate crisis that is not good enough.


  1. Pingback: How green are Europe's railways? - Jon Worth

  2. Excellent article, as always, but can someone explain to me why there are no private competitors on routes with sky high demand, such as Paris-Brussels-Netherlands or Paris-Brussels-Cologne?

    • Because – in short – no one who could run a train on those lines has any that are suitable.

      Take Bruxelles-Paris. You need a 300km/h train, with TVM430 signalling – rare, and if anyone can build you one, very costly. Which companies from elsewhere in Europe really could run here? NS, SNCB and SNCF are involved in Eurostar in one way or another, so will not. Renfe and Trenitalia might eventually try, but at the moment have no suitable trains. And no private operator has yet tried as they do not have the finance to start with something this expensive – all the places where open access works are largely in the 200-230km/h range, not 300km/h.

  3. Max Wyss

    I may be wrong, but isn’t TEN-T mainly freight corridors?

    Which brings me to an even darker chapter with the European railways: freight. (I know you are passenger-focused, but that would be worth some research…)

    • TEN-T networks are supposed to be double track (at least), 160km/h (at least), and mixed use. How you determine the latter – either on separate lines for freight and passenger, or together – depends on the circumstance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *