That the European Union needs to get more passengers and freight onto its railways is a no-brainer. Europe has a dense network of railways, with a lot of them in reasonable condition, a decent percentage electrified, and plenty of lines allowing trains to run at a good speed. With roads clogged with traffic, and flying being so environmentally unsustainable, modal shift to rail makes a lot of sense.

But turning that need into practical action such a damned hard nut to crack.

I’ve now been running the Trains for Europe campaign for 8 months, demanding that the European Union organises the procurement of a fleet of new night trains. We don’t know the exact market potential of night trains in Europe, but the two reasonable studies we have – by Steer-KCW for the European Commission, and by the French Government (PDF here) – put the number of new carriages required at between 170 and 300 – precise enough for our needs here. (This of course excludes what ÖBB is already doing – they are the big exception in this sector, but they can’t solve these problems alone)

So what happens?

Nothing.

Because all the players play pass the buck.

The European Commission wants the railway industry to solve the issue, and hence together with the European Investment Bank proposes a loan based financing system to tempt railway companies to buy new trains, but none of them have taken the bait yet. The problem is that the state incumbent railways represented by the Community of European Railways are not convinced they want to run night trains, as they have stepped out of the business – so demand more direct public subsidies to tempt these firms back into the market. On the other side there is AllRail, the association of the private rivals, who argue that the market conditions are still not favourable enough to run services against state incumbents, and most of the private firms are too small anyway. And state-owned and private-owned firms alike all point the finger at other modes, complaining that kerosene is not taxed, or that long distance coaches do not pay road tolls – and that all of this can only be solved once track access charges for all trains are lowered.

So while studies show there is a market for night time services, and there is public demand for better long distance international rail connections, nothing gets done.

Or take the example of Lithuania being cut off from the rest of the EU’s railways for passenger trains, the subject of the open letter I released today (together with a bunch of other signatories). The European Union is investing heavily in the Rail Baltica project, and the line to Kaunas that exists already and was built with EU money.

But no passenger services run on it.

For Lithuania it is a Polish problem, as the only trains that can operate the service belong to a Polish company. For Poland it’s a Lithuanian problem, as it is a Lithuanian city – Kaunas – that would benefit most from the connection. EU decision makers think everything is fine and dandy as their shiny publicity train – the Connecting Europe Express – went to Kaunas last year, and the Commission would never concern itself with something so small.

Unlike the night train issue above, this solution at the Poland-Lithuania is very simple – Polregio S.A. has at least 5 of the trains you would need to run the service and could deploy them tomorrow. But naturally nothing gets done.

There are plenty of other examples I could cite here – the decreasing data quality in cross border timetables (simple to solve – put it all in UIC Merits!), no timetable coordination at some borders (easy to solve – if someone wanted to solve it!), railway companies discriminating based on a person’s stated location (that’s just plain unethical).

Instead we have the industry giving an award for the Connecting Europe Express to the politician whose institution gave that industry the contract to run the Connecting Europe Express, but the politician herself flew to the stops of the Express, rather than going by train. An example of the complete and total disconnection between the elite of EU railway policy and the needs of everyday cross border passengers.

What the hell do we do about all of this?

I hear all the time, from all sorts of folks, that people would be keen to take trains if the service offered was good and trains easy to book, and how that is so often not the case. I’m trying to take that public need, and to turn it into practical political action. But it feels like towards political decision makers in the EU, and towards the railway companies themselves, I am shouting into a void.

3 Comments

  1. Another rail fan

    Actually, incumbents are changing and have publicly committed to grealy improving digital international passenger rail services by 2025, such as longer booking horizons, much easier ticketing, integrated European real time travel information, support for passengers during disruptions and delays, etc, and by 2030, this is including multimodality: https://www.cer.be/publications/latest-publications/cer-ticketing-roadmap

    I understand that this has been a long time coming (one could say it was overdue), but it does help to pay attention when things are actually changing, instead of repeating the same narrative.

    • Yeah. Let’s commit to something vaguely that’s to happen three years from now… while not putting our data in systems that do work NOW like UIC Merits. Inadequate, sorry.

  2. a european railfan

    I think European passenger rail is in a critical phase. There is infrastructure funding and public support, but it’s clear the incumbents are not open to big changes. And for private/open-access operators we are at the point that they are large enough that the incumbents have noticed and try to slow them down, but not large enough that survival is guaranteed.

    Incumbents have the upper-hand: rolling stock, know-how, brand recognition, favorable track-access, funding, etc… There’s only one thing new entrants can exploit: the incumbents’ inertia.

    So new entrants need to somehow use a startup mentality of focusing on growth at all costs. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

    Since there are no angel investors in railways, new entrants need to work together, at times foregoing individual profits, to gain an edge as an industry. Cooperate not just via representation like AllRail, but also in practical matters:
    • Cross-sell tickets
    • Common rolling stock procurement
    • Using common subsidiaries to avoid lengthy approval processes for international operation
    • Sharing locomotives and drivers on routes/regions where there isn’t sufficient traffic to justify individual operations

    This is just my 2 cents, but I feel like if the status quo prevails, there won’t be a sufficient modal shift and rail travel will once again remain an internal affair of the member states.

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