Transport & Environment, Allrail, Trainline and some private railway companies and ticket sellers have released a letter (PDF here) to the European Commission calling for a reduction in track access charges for passenger trains. They specifically mention “trains with high capacity” (whatever that means exactly – run fewer, larger trains?), night trains and cross-border trains. A track access charge is the fee a train pays to use a kilometre of track – and this varies according to type of train, type of track, time of day etc.

The signatories of the letter state that the cost of rail tickets is an important factor discouraging passengers from taking trains, and that between 12 and 40% of the cost of a ticket is from track access charges.

But what would be the impact of reducing track access charges?

Short term, pretty much none I reckon. Well, other than worsening the balance sheet of network operators, and improving the balance sheet of the likes of Regiojet and Flixtrain that signed the letter, and the likes of ÖBB that did not.

The letter – while based on some sound ethics – does not, as I see it, work in practice.

First, reducing the cost side – especially for international routes and night train routes – is not going to reduce the ticket price a passenger pays, because at the moment demand out-strips supply. Deutsche Bahn is for example capping sales on its international routes this summer, fearing overcrowding. If your trains are already full at the current price point, and you reduce your costs, is an operator going to correspondingly reduce ticket prices? I doubt it. And even if operators did reduce the costs for consumers, you are going to – short term anyway – simply transport different passengers, rather than transporting more passengers. That might be a socially advantageous outcome, but it is not going to help with a shift to rail from more polluting transport modes.

Also let’s not forget that Germany has already slashed track access charges for night trains – in summer of 2023. And what has ÖBB – the biggest operator of night trains on German tracks – done since? Errr, increased its prices – in some cases massively.

Second, even if a reduction in track access charges could tempt operators to try to up their supply – which is what you ought to hope! – is there any way to do that? Again I am sceptical. If it is a high speed international route, no operator – especially private ones – has any trains available to deploy. Even at speeds up to 200km/h there is little extra stock available. It is the same for night train routes – look at the nightmares European Sleeper has had to cobble together a fleet.

You could – at a stretch – make the case that a better economic framework in a 5-10 year time horizon could tip the balance towards more operators being able to possibly make the major investment in new trains required – but then such track access reductions would then need to be permanent and long term, and that is not even a point that is made in the letter.

The problem as I see it then is this argument about track access charges is rather putting the coach before the horses. There are two major problems – the lack of capacity at crucial points on the European railway network, and the lack of extra trains that could be deployed either by existing or by rival operators in the places there is some extra capacity already. I develop this point more about the Paris-Bruxelles route here. Until you seriously begin to address those issues, then I am not convinced changing the track access charges regime helps you very much. And that is before we even come to other thorny issues – station access charges, access to workshops to maintain trains, approval of rolling stock for cross border routes, and path allocation, especially during the night.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jon, for your perspective. One point you don’t address is the internal structure of Deutsche Bahn. If I understand correctly, the operation of DB Navigator and ticket sales is a division of DB Fernverkehr. But shouldn’t DB InfraGO be responsible for providing timetables, real-time data and interfaces to sales systems? How does this kind of compartmentalisation fit in with the supposed orientation towards the common good? In any case, it is clear that European regulation is needed. And it is even clearer that all these problems and solutions would not exist in the first place if the railways were run by the public sector, nationalised and not profit-driven.

    • No idea, sorry. I am not privy to the internal division of responsibility within DB. But putting not only timetables but also ticket sales responsibility with InfraGo might be a solution, yes.

  2. Interesting issue, but there might be a broader-minded way of addressing it.

    Rather than cut down the track access charges applicable to individual paths, Infra Managers should incentivise higher frequency directly

    Eg, if an operator starts a new line (or re-opens a former line closed at least 3-4 years earlier than intended re-instatement), then inaugural discounts (phased out over 3 years) should attact higher rate if 2-hr interval timetable, and even a higher discount rate if 1-hr regular interval.

    When upgrading unfrequent services to 2-hr / 1-hr interval and 2-hr interval to 1-hr interval, there should also be inaugural discounts available over 3-5 years.

    This way, there will run more services, while the infra managers will cash in more revenue in the end.

    That won’t solve the problems of European Sleepers, but operators such as TI France, Renfe France, RegioJet, WestBahn, Flix… shall doubtless appreciate.

  3. Jacob Wix Nielsen

    I think you are right, that it will not solve the issue. there are too many other issues to solve first.

    but if it should be changed. the they should not pay pr kilometer but the time they use the resources. because this actually shows the capacity they are using.
    because then they also pay for the time they are at the platform, interlocked parking sports, ect.

    It will not necessarily give the high speed trains discount, because it will require more Headway.

    the only problem being that it might not be clear what they pay, compared to a flat rate kilometer payment.

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