Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has been spending months preparing a report on the future of the EU’s Single Market. The report will be presented to Heads of State and Government this week, and was published yesterday – you can find the PDF here.

A couple of well connected political insider friends of mine in both Bruxelles and Roma told me to watch out for the report as railways will feature strongly within it, and they are not wrong – there it is, right in the introduction:

During this journey, I also experienced firsthand the most glaring paradox of EU infrastructure: the impossibility of travelling by high-speed train between European capitals. In a continent as small and densely populated as ours, which has also embarked on the path of environmental sustainability, it would have been natural to travel by train, the quintessential green mode of transportation. However, this is currently impossible and seems unlikely to change in the near future, as concrete operational plans remain merely theoretical.

Hang on. That’s rather excessive. There are loads of pairs of capital cities in Europe that are well connected by train, even if not all of those lines are high speed. This, I think, belies Letta’s bias more than anything else – someone used to flying between national capitals, and wants to replace that with railways.

Further, if we take Letta at face value for a moment, there are plenty of capitals too far from or too geographically complex to the next neighbouring capital to make high speed trains – daytime anyway – a viable option.

Take Roma that Letta knows well – both Bern and Ljubljana, the nearest capitals you can reach overground, are both around 850km from Roma. Two thirds of the route to Bern is high speed already, and a third of the route to Ljubljana, but look at the parts that are not – high speed line along Lago Maggiore, Enrico? Or along the coast from Venezia to Trieste and then through the Karst of western Slovenia? Just to connect capitals? I doubt that would pass any economic impact assessment, and, well, isn’t the purpose of the report that we are supposed to be making economically sensible decisions?

Then there are the cases that Letta specifically mentions – he has praise for the Amsterdam-Bruxelles-Paris axis (because it is fast) but capacity is not what it should be, because of the behaviour of the rail firms – a point that escapes him. That there is no viable Bruxelles-Luxembourg-Strasbourg connection is bemoaned, but building high speed to Luxembourg was ruled out decades ago as not economically viable – presumably there are not enough people like Letta needing to make such trips. A comfortable InterCity using a portion of the high speed line from near Metz to Strasbourg would work – but can someone please tell SNCB, CFL and SNCF?

So, pretty much, going “connect up the capitals by high speed rail” falls short. It’s a nice slogan, there are some places we could indeed do that, but as a vision for the future it is intellectually slack.

Don’t get me wrong – there are places where rail infrastructure, and poor speeds and insufficient capacity on existing lines is a problem. And the EU has identified a bunch of those – the core ones are meant to be upgraded by 2030 as part of the TEN-T core network. More are meant to be done by 2040 as part of the comprehensive network. The plan on paper is OK, the implementation… well, it is rather missing.

Which is precisely where it gets better in Letta’s report.

Buried away on pages 84 and 85 it gets much more concrete about implementation – with a solid commitment to the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC), and Digital Capacity Management (DCM), more power for the EU Agency for Railways. There is even something on ticketing: “here is a pressing need for an EU-wide, integrated, multimodal information, ticketing, and payment services framework.

So while I have some problem with the rhetoric about high speed, when it comes to the detail much of this is good. And that rail is so front and central in a report of this nature is very welcome too.

Now then, who is going to be Vălean’s successor as European Commissioner for Transport from the autumn to actually get on with doing all of this?


  1. “building high speed to Luxembourg was ruled out decades ago”

    Do you have a link/source for that? I always assumed it was because Belgium expected Luxembourg to pay for it, rather than it was unviable per se.

    • 2006 to be precise – which was when the decision to proceed with an upgrade to 160km/h on mostly the existing alignment was agreed. There has been no discussion about a high speed line since then, and nor do I foresee any happening soon either. Background here.

      The reasons are in terms of finance and demand – there’s not enough demand Luxembourg-Bruxelles for high speed there alone, and with 160km/h speed you will get a trip time of 2 hours 20 or so, which is good enough. And south east of Luxembourg you have Metz and Strasbourg, neither of which are significant enough for France to really want to invest much to connect them to Bruxelles.

      So – overall – the upgrade is a bit rubbish, but I do understand why the economic case to do more was weak.

      Now if SNCB ran a decent and comfortable InterCity train that stopped only in Arlon and Namur at peak morning and evening hours that would do a lot of good I think. But I’m not holding my breath SNCB would dare do something so customer friendly.

      • Max Wyss

        The “decent and comfortable InterCity trains that stopped only in Arlon and Namur, were called “Edelweiss” and “Iris” (and were TEEs).

        Well, that was a long time ago… and the trains became grey mice. Fortunately, one unit is restored, but I am not sure if it still has the international certifications.

  2. The most urgent target is to have the currenr upgrade completed ASAP, as it started in 2006… (and 2004 in the Brussels area, as part of the RER project…).

    1 IC+ running every 2 hours and calling at Namur and Arlon shall make in it <2hrs20min, in addition to the current IC service which will run every 30min by 2028-2029.

    Next priority, for the 2030s-2040s, should be a full-fledged HSL, running via Wavre-LLN – Namur (+by-pass) – Marche en F – Bastogne – Arlon (+by-pass). Currently, Brussels – Luxembourg is the busiest railway corridor in Wallonia, so HSR makes sense.

    But the priority for

  3. FyraFlop

    Perhaps a fully-fledged 320 km/h line to Luxembourg is too much to ask for, but there are, medium-term, several improvements that can be made. Bxl – Ottignies will be doubled and at 160. Ottignies – Namur perhaps should be in the future, and is dead straight, so 200 km/h is not unheard of. SNCB’s new IC’s could make use of these increased speeds as well (these are 200 km/h, unlike the, for example, their Dutch cousins). East of Namur upgrades get more costly, and the line will reach technical speed limits due to the curvatures, but as PGLux mentioned, some bypasses (i.e. Marche-en-Flammene) could shave off some more minutes. Alternatively, 200-250 km/h tilting trains could be studied, but these might run into capacity constraints with the envisaged service patterns. Arlon – Luxembourg should be brought to 160, and Luxembourg – Thionville as well. In France, there is some work around Metz: again, line should be brought to 160 where possible, and then the service can use the LGV Est which has plenty of capacity.
    3.5 hours should be very doable, if not less to compete with the TGV via Paris.
    But of course, the question is not so much one of infrastructure, as the line literally already exists, but of running the service. Competitive tender? SNCF/B? Does not really matter, but new trains (prob EMU’s) will be needed medium term, which have to be bought of course.

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