For the period spanning roughly 2015 to 2019, Brexit was my prime political preoccupation. Analysing what would happen next, and doing plenty of media work about the twists and turns of the sorry saga. When Boris Johnson won the December 2019 General Election it was time to step away from it all for my own personal sanity. Here you can find more of my reasoning.
I instead turned to an issue that has long been on my mind: the problems with railways in Europe. I am politically green, I try to avoid flying, and when you travel as much by train as I do – especially internationally – you start to realise all the things that go wrong, and as I know how the EU works, in my case I then began to wonder what the EU could do to fix those issues.
The work I have done in the past 18 months has been fairly successful highlighting the issues with Europe’s railways, and what to do to fix them. My small Trains for Europe initiative has started the hard work to answer not why we need more night trains in Europe, but how we might manage to get them. My #CrossBorderRail project – run in the summer of 2022 – told the stories of Europe’s railway woes in a different way, going and visiting all the cross border lines and documenting what is not working. And some media – such as ARD Europamagazin, Dnevnik and Euronews – have picked up on what I have been doing.
But I now face a fork in the tracks.
What do I do next? And – related – how do I manage to scale it and finance it?
The Trains for Europe campaign has been run in my free time, and has zero budget. #CrossBorderRail was crowd financed as a project (€7400 was raised, and covered the costs to run the project and a very small compensation for my time spent too, but that is all over now). Currently all the railway work I do is without budget – my work as a freelance EU politics training consultant is cross-subsidising it all. That is not sustainable.
But before I can really work out how to finance things, I need to work out what I should best do – and that might then lead to ways to live from railway work.
Here I need your assistance – from people reading my blog, and people who follow me on social media!
I can see four options.
Option 1 – develop a career as an independent railway commentator
This is to some extent what #CrossBorderRail was – it was going and visiting places, telling the stories about what does and does not work. This builds on what I have been doing on my blog here for years – I can analyse, I can explain. My writing and photography is good enough to mean I have a reasonable readership. My knowledge and ability to talk and present means I can be a passable guest on television and radio shows, and a speaker at events – and in English, German and French. Many people have suggested I ought to write a book telling all the stories of #CrossBorderRail, and while I have not yet written a book it is not a bad idea. I would also need a publisher, as trying to self-publish this would likely be a recipe for a bad book.
I know in this area there are a few things I do not want to do. My video editing skills are not great, and so I’m not going to try to be a YouTube star. I dislike anything paywalled, especially newsletters, so I am not going to start a Substack – whatever it is I do, it has to be something I would personally be OK to use. And there are loads of railway podcasts, so it strikes me that would not be my niche.
But how could this all work out, financially? I could perhaps crowd fund some further #CrossBorderRail type projects. I could perhaps write more for some publication or other, but I do not know what publication that would be. I could maybe pick up a paid speaking gig once in a while. And were I to write a book I don’t know how to finance my time while writing it.
I know how to do this one, but I do not know how to live from it. Ideas are most welcome!
Option 2 – develop a passenger railway campaign organisation
I first sketched out how this could be done in a 2014 blog post, and a recent interview I did with Follow the Money expanded on it a little – who is really lobbying for what railway passengers need towards the European Union institutions? And lobbying works – one of the reasons why railway policy at EU level is so poor is that it is the railway companies (notably the state owned ones through the Community of European Railways) that have lobbied so hard to make sure their own positions are as protected as possible.
There is of course the European Passengers’ Federation partially active in this sector already, and somehow helping them scale and become more effective in their advocacy, could be one way forward. I would so wish there was something for railways as effective as BEUC is for consumers.
But to do this effectively really means being based in Brussels, and I am currently not super keen to move away from Germany (with some time spent in Bourgogne as well). I am also not at all sure that organisation building is my skill, or at least it is not something that comes easily to me. Were this one to work somehow I would need other people to do it with, and for those to be people with organisational building skills. Is there anyone in my network up for partnering on this one?
This one needs doing, but I am probably not the person to lead such an organisation. But could I help build such an organisation? And how could such an organisation be best financed?
Option 3 – join or co-found a company in the railway industry
There are two possible ways this could work.
The really interesting companies in passenger rail are in tech and ticketing – Omio, Trainline, All Aboard, Railtic etc. are trying to solve a problem that has been around for years, namely to build a kind of “Skyscanner for Rail”. With new legislation due at EU level on multi-modal passenger ticketing in 2023, advocacy by a company in this sector over the next twelve months could make a major difference. Or, having learned a hell of a lot about European railways and with a solid online community ready to help, could I even help one of these companies streamline and improve their rail ticket selling experience? I am not sure my skills match the latter, but perhaps some company might be able to use the experience I have?
The other way to solve the night train problem outlined by my Trains for Europe campaign would be… to build a company that could solve the problem. I am not at all convinced by the private firms in the night train business at the moment, but there is a niche for a flexible leasing and operations firm, and I outline how such a company could work here. The problem with this one is I have no idea how to begin to build a company, let alone one of the organisational and financial scale necessary here. I bring public affairs and communication skill to such an enterprise, and know people I would like to have in a team who can handle rolling stock and paths, but I cannot be a CEO or COO of such an enterprise – and I am not currently aware of anyone I know who might fit the bill.
I do not think there would likely be a role for me in a state owned railway company, or working for a manufacturer – I think I would struggle if my own views did not match the direction of a company.
Somehow none of these options are quite the right fit, and I am not altogether sure I have the right skills – but were they to work, it could be really interesting, and employment would solve the financial point.
Option 4 – run for elected political office
I tried and failed to get a position on the European Parliament election list for the German Grüne for the 2019 European Elections, and – given the problems with railways in Europe are political, and the problems need solving at EU level – I wonder whether it might make sense to put my name forward for the list again in 2024. I lost by about 50 votes for position 20 on the list at the party congress in Leipzig in 2018 (you can find the speech I gave then – including a part about trains – here). I have been a member of the Grüne for some time now, and I am deputy spokesperson of the federal working group of EU politics of the party – and someone who knows how to do transport policy in the EU might be useful for the Grüne again in 2024.
However there are some problems. I have never felt fully at ease in political parties – either in the UK or in Germany. This is not an ethical issue – I am fine with the railway policy of the party. It is more about attitude. The people who do advance in the party are – probably rightly – the people who spend every last little bit of their free time doing party work. Were I to stand a chance of getting on the 2024 list I need to do that too, and starting from now. I’d also like to find some people inside the party to build something with, people who can help change European transport policy – but I am yet to really find those people.
If this is to be the route, I need to commit to it fully, right away – and are there others in to help? And there is no way to finance this – I would have to simply support this from my other work, at least for the next 18 months.
So that’s what I know at the moment, and the ideas and the questions I have. And the limits I see.
hi John- I was following your travels through the European rail borders and it looked fascinating! So much work needs to be done before the European rail system is functionning well enough to be able to be a feasable alternative to flights. I think there is a big gap where thea lot of civil society organisations call for a ban of the short flights and stop there. Your input would be very well recieved as this gives specific examples on how and where the rail system could be improved. Why not joining one of those organisations as a fellow or as a sector specific consultant? And there you would meet people who could help with your ideas and speed their implementation – be it a book or a company.
Really hope you can find the way to spread the message!
Thanks for the comment!
I think making the *case* for trains versus planes is the one area of advocacy that is being done quite well – notably Greenpeace has been making that argument. The question then for me is a slightly different one – WHERE and HOW the rail system needs to be improved, in order to make that modal shift happen. Which organisation(s) would want work on that point I wonder?
I think under option 2’ you might as well indeed better team up with EPF instead of creating a new organisation. Are you in contact with them?
Yes I am regularly in contact with a member of their board, and I have managed to get them to be speakers at events. At the moment nothing really comes back very much though. Some other organisations – like ProBahn in Germany for example – have also then given some publicity to things I have been doing, but that hasn’t happened from EPF yet. There is also no way really to be active within EPF in its own right, as it’s an organisation of organisations. So basically yes, your point is right, but I don’t really know *how*.
I’d cast my vote for condensing your findings into a book, and seeing where things go from there.
First, you gleaned a tremendous amount of insight from the journey that would simply be a waste not to organize and preserve properly.
Second, you clearly have the writing skills, and surely more than enough photos. And it wouldn’t involve video editing or paywalls, as you mentioned you’d rather avoid.
One approach might be to organize the book around a series of “principles of effective cross-border rail organization/operation”, rather than in a chronological/geographical way as on the blog.
A book that came to mind is “Human Transit” by Jarret Walker, explaining underlying principles and tradeoffs involved in (urban) public transport. A similar structure might work well. For example, you could devote separate chapters to challenges such as 1) physical infrastructure 2) timetable integration 3) fare/tariff integration 4) information availability, just to name a few obvious ones, for each chapter providing real-world examples of best/worst practices experienced on your trip.
I’m afraid this doesn’t help with the big question – financing. Crowd financing could perhaps provide some support, and gauge interest. Any local governments in regions that would particularly benefit from improved cross-border services, that might be coaxed into throwing in some tourism development funds?
Any specialized publishers that would be inclined to support such a topic? Or perhaps better yet, consultancies/industries that want to bolster their thought leadership in sustainable transport and/or EU regional integration?
Your organisation could be a charity – I know a little about UK-based charity law. The public benefit wouldn’t have to be for the UK although I would prefer if it did, in fact I would move you to come here and sort out our failing railway system. With a charity setup, your funding could come partly from grants and donations, and partly from fund-raising events and endeavours.
While I sympathise with the plight of UK rail users, I cannot fix UK rail! That’s a step too far for me… My main focus and knowledge has to be EU railways!
Hi Jon, as I mentioned on Twitter, I really appreciate what you’re doing. The fact that I learned about your advocacy via the NYTimes article that covered you, clearly you’re doing something right. It might not be financially lucrative at the moment – and trust me, I’m well-aware that everyone has rent or a mortgage to pay – but it is certainly something to consider. Passion projects are great, but to borrow from the airline industry: you have to put the mask on yourself before helping the person next to you.
I really like the idea of writing a book, but as any author will tell you, writing a book takes a lot of time – it’s a big commitment, and the initial signing offer is what helps to subsidise your life while you’re researching and writing.
To me, it would make much more sense to go the advocacy route (no pun intended). How can you, instead of inventing something new (i.e., option 3) that is ultimately competing with what’s already out there, how can you help amplify and move existing efforts forward? I like option two with a hint of option 3 (i.e., joining a board, for instance, of something like a night train company such as European Sleeper or one of the SkyScanners for trains). I want to politely but encouragingly disagree that you have to be in Brussels to work with an advocacy group, especially now with the rise of remote work. I think it’s entirely possible for you to stay in Berlin, especially if you state that doing so is helpful to further mapping train routes and continuing the work that you do. There are many different ones to consider as well, such as the European Rail Research Advisory Council (ERRAC) or Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking (EU-Rail).
Personally, the way I like to work on things is by connecting – people, ideas, organisations, companies – who are like-minded and have much to gain via collaboration. I think you’re in a unique position to do that, or continue doing that, as well. You may also want to consider reaching out to political parties (e.g., the Greens) who have a genuine interest in seeing train travel expanded. And working directly with the EU on moving train operators to coordinate more effectively is really key. I’m fairly certain it’s a key part of the European Green Deal as well.
Happy to chat more if you think it’s useful. Keep up the great work!