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.