My previous post was a kind of hopeless “well we know the problems with railways, but what do we do?”
Here – and motivated by Justin Scholz who has been pushing me to write this sort of thing for months – here are a series of policy proposals to fix Europe’s railways, with the emphasis on the cross border problems. These are not finished or polished ideas by any means, but this post is just the start. The points are in no particular order or priority, and some are more concrete and well thought out than others.
1. Publish an annual cross border rail index
This sounds tedious, but is really important. The European Commission does not know where the problems with Europe’s railways are, and at what borders things are getting better or worse. Many of the practical examples my #CrossBorderRail project revealed were new to many people in the Brussels corridors of power. So list up all the cross border lines, and assess each year if infra quality, passenger and freight services, and ticketing, and reliability are getting better or worse at each one. This blog post explains more about the idea.
2. Open data for timetables, tickets and live-running
The reason we do not have a “Skyscanner for rail” app or site is that access to the data to build such a thing is incomplete, or in siloes. I don’t care whether it would be a private or a state owned firm that would build such a thing, but being able to put in two stations, get a route, and book, and then be informed about whether a train is on time or not, would be a major step forward. I am torn as to whether the best way to build this is via the old UIC Merits route, or through something completely new – but booking train tickets, Europe-wide is a pain, and the EU needs to legislate to fix it. This post explains the dysfunction in more depth.
3. Unified time horizons for publishing timetables, and releasing tickets for sale
Timetables for all trains should be published at least 3 months ahead (I’d be happy to see this increased to 6 months, but I could live with 3), and once a timetable is released so too should ticket sales be opened. If a timetable then changes, passengers would need to be informed – which would mean leaving an email address or telephone number in order to book ahead would also be obligatory. But that would give passengers the security to plan rail trips in the same way as they have security to plan flights.
4. A hop on next-available-train guarantee
Forget obliging railway companies being able to sell you a kind of anywhere-ticket – a so-called through ticket. Try Lisboa to Ventimiglia in one ticket – not a hope any railway company is going to sell you that or in the future be able to sell it, and that includes state railways (who refuse to collaborate with each other). So you need a radically different solution to help passengers in the case of delays and missed connections. Multiple tickets (say Lisboa-Badajoz from CP, Badajoz-Madrid and Madrid-Barcelona from Renfe, Barcelona-Montpellier with SNCF etc.) if booked according to an approved itinerary respecting minimum transfer times must be accompanied with a hop on next train guarantee. Delay of – say – more than 20 minutes, or a missed connection, and you can take any next train towards your destination. This might mean railway companies need a compensation system between them to cover costs, but so be it. If I have a valid travel chain, then railway companies will have to get me to my destination – coping with the chain being broken must not be the responsibility of the customer.
5. Rail passes valid to the first station after the border
Many European countries are experimenting with different sorts of rail passes and flat rate tickets – think Deutschlandticket and Klimaticket in Austria. But trying to combine these at borders is a complete mess, as my detailed investigation at Germany’s borders showed. So make all rail passes valid to the first station after a border, as a matter of course. It’s simple, cheap, and should be easy to implement – and helps out in border regions.
6. Timetable coordination power for the EU Agency for Railways
At many borders, timetables of regional trains are not coordinated. At Valga-Valka, or Ventimiglia, connecting passengers miss onward trains by minutes and are left waiting hours for the next one. A power for the EU Agency for Railways to coordinate this would make sense – building on point 1. above, because then we will know in a systematic way where these problems actually occur.
7. Turn the EU Agency for Railways into a “Eurocontrol for Rail”
There are two problems with rail paths at borders. First, how paths are allocated each side of a border can vary (so different types of trains can be prioritised each side). Second, the poor quality of the network in many places mean paths have to be allocated in real time, rather than using the formal planned process. Power on coordination of paths, and real time path allocation, for the Agency would be a solution for this issue.
8. Legal sanction for delayed completion of TEN-T projects
On paper the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network TEN-T is solving the infrastructure problems on main lines. But the problem is that these upgrades are either delayed in many places, or indeed have not even got started. And the TEN-T core network is due to be completed by 2030! 7 years from now! So it is time the European Commission starting getting a bit more pushy with EU Member States, and even taking them to the Court of Justice of the EU for non-implementation. And failing that then some very public naming and shaming might go some way towards the same end.
9. Interoperability funding – and rolling stock pools
Trains equipped with more than one electrification system or more than one signalling system cost more to procure than single-system trains. The EU should fund the difference, and regardless of operator – either private or public. This would mean that extending trains to the first station after a border (see point 5. above) should be easier than it is currently, where the absence of suitable trains acts as a barrier. For some other types of rolling stock – notably night train carriages – more radical solutions might be needed, where the EU could perhaps coordinate consortia for the procurement of such carriages, or even set up publicly owned rolling stock pools – if railway companies are not stepping up to solve these problems themselves.
10. Ban on scrapping trains
Part of the reason it is so hard for new entrants to enter the European railway market is they cannot get second hand trains. While some state railways are good at selling old stock second hand, others would sooner send their trains to scrap than let them fall into the hands of other operators. So until some external assessor has examined a train it should not be scrapped, as this blog post explains.
Oh and a bonus idea to hold it all together… Integrated clock face timetables – Swiss style – are a great thing. How about aiming for a Europatakt? But unlike the other ideas sketched out here that is a lot harder, and a lot longer term to do!
Also note here I do not address fair competition between modes, or the scale of the investment needed. My focus is instead on medium scale initiatives that would nevertheless have a marked impact.