Trains are a good thing. Capable of shipping huge quantities of people and freight over long distances and doing so without most of the downsides of road or air transport. Politicians of pretty much any political colour will be happy to say they are pro-rail. 2021 is even European Year of Rail.

So far so good.

But beyond that it gets rather less clear.

If trains are such a good option, why are people instead flying routes you could easily do by train? Or taking longer trips by car instead? Why is rail’s modal share so stubbornly low in many European countries, and rail’s share of cross border long distance travel in the EU worse still?

When reading that series of questions your immediate response is likely to think about what’s wrong with what we have currently. The inefficiencies of Deutsche Bahn perhaps, or the excess statism of SNCF, or a lack of high speed infrastructure, or poor digitisation of ticketing options. Not far beyond that you end up with the never-ending discussion about the role of state firms and private firms in the running of a railway, and models to cope with that tension – separation of operations and infrastructure, competitive tendering versus on-rail competition. Add onto that some specifics about the technicalities of how to run a railway, national traditions, and an unhealthy dose of nostalgia (especially for night trains) and you end up with the patchwork we have in Europe just now.

But take a step back for a moment.

What is long distance passenger rail actually good for? Who is it good for?

That depends on my priorities as a passenger. How important are speed, price, reliability and ease of use to a passenger? And how do I build out from that?

I am typical rail business traveller – speed is more important than price, I am happy to change trains if it gets me there more quickly, but I need rail to be reliable – if I miss a connection, I need the next train to be there shortly afterwards. Most people in my shoes would fly or drive instead, but the trip would happen anyway. Evidence from the speeding up of the Berlin-München rail route shows that something like 4 hours is the tipping point for these sorts of trips by train.

But how a student would behave is rather different – he or she would be more price conscious, and less time conscious than a business traveller. A trip by long distance bus would be an alternative, or perhaps not taking the trip at all. Elderly passengers, or those with reduced mobility, or families travelling together would have their own combinations of speed, price, reliability and ease of use. How does long distance rail reach those people? What sorts of services are appropriate for each of them?

Stemming from all of that are a whole series of further questions about how the rail service should look – is replacing daytime trains with night trains even an option for business trips? What about really early and really late services each day? What about occasional really long distance services to show what is even possible to do by train? What about passenger rights and digitisation of ticketing? Timetable coordination? Live running data?

Only once you have answers to all of those questions should you even begin to work on the how to solve those problems – who should run the services, what mix of public and private, who should procure the rolling stock, what additional infrastructure is going to be required.

Now don’t get me wrong – we have some partial answers already (here’s Deutsche Bahn’s strategy for example) but there is no discernible overall strategy for long distance rail, Europe wide. Until we know where we are trying to go, it is no surprise we struggle to get there.

(Partial solutions to some of the issues posed here can be found in my posts about Deutschlandtakt/Europatakt, night train procurement and data transparency and rail. Further details of the problems with Europe-wide rail can be found in this introductory piece I wrote for The New Statesman.)

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