When you travel by rail Europe-wide as much as I do (and also spend as much time debating rail policy in Europe as I do when I am not travelling), you end up with an overwhelming impression: cross border rail does not work as well as train travel within one European country.

Here are two examples from the past 24 hours.

The first cross border train on the Oslo S 🇳🇴 – Göteborg C 🇸🇪 since 11 March 2020 arrived in Göteborg this morning. Yes you read that right – no cross border trains for more than 18 months! And that despite car, bus and air traffic crossing the border to and from Norway for months. I understand why the COVID pandemic might have resulted in the initial suspension, but why did it take months longer for the trains to be restored? And trains services on all main lines within Norway were run at least once a day right throughout the pandemic – why does public service like this break down at a border?

The second is the eventful story told by Leonie Martin and Luis Heemstra of being stuck for 3 hours in a failed ICE stuck in a tunnel just on the Belgian side of the Germany-Belgium border, between Aachen and Liège. Problems on this line, and especially reliability issues with the DB ICE 406 series deployed on this line, are common (I am a regular on that route), but one of the headaches in the case of the train Luis and Leonie were on board was that SNCB/NMBS* (the Belgian railway company) was charged with rescuing a German railway company’s failed train – and then putting on an inadequate rail replacement bus to Brussels.

Were these Oslo to Bergen, or Köln to Frankfurt services that were this bad, it would be a scandal in the press. National politicians would be all over it. And action plans would be put forward to put it right.

But as these are international services, each side generally assumes that the other side is to blame. Well it’s a German train that can’t cope with the electrification system on the Belgian track! 🤷‍♂️ Well it’s the Norwegians that don’t want to run to Göteborg! Who takes the train on that route anyway? 🤷‍♂️

So here’s an idea what the European Commission could do about it: publish an annual index of cross border rail in Europe. Or – putting it another way – do a bit of naming and shaming of where things are getting worse.

Let’s take the two examples above.

Oslo – Halden – Trollhättan – Göteborg is, in the middle part, a rather old and slow, single track, electrified line – but at least electrified at 15kV ac throughout. Through running here presents no major technical problems – infrastructure is good enough – let’s award that a 🟡 score. At the moment there are only 2 cross border trains on the route each way each day – that’s hence 🟠 (it could be a lot better, but it could be worse). However the worst aspect is the timetables – the onward train from Göteborg C to København H leaves 5 minutes before the train from Oslo S has arrived. And the operator of the Oslo – Göteborg train (Vy) cannot sell tickets for onward connections in Sweden, while Swedish operator SJ can. Try it in the opposite direction and the most convenient train from København H (if you started your trip in Germany) arrives in Göteborg at 18:20… the final train to Oslo C having departed 10 minutes earlier at 18:10. So ticketing and timetabling scores 🔴 (very poor).

Bruxelles – Liège – Aachen – Köln is a completely different connection when it comes to the infrastructure – Leven – Liège is built for 300km/h, Liège to the German border, and Düren – Köln are built for 250/260km/h, and the remaining parts are 160km/h or 200km/h – infrastructure scores 🟢. Trains operate roughly every hour, with a gap in the middle of the day, and with an absence of good late evening services – but this is reasonable. There are also the reliability problems documented above – so this scores 🟡. Trains on the route are operated by two operators – Deutsche Bahn runs ICEs, and the SNCF-SNCB joint venture Thalys runs the others. One hour there is a ICE, the next hour a Thalys – with tickets for one of them not generally accepted on the other – and with problems combining the tickets with other operators in Germany (in the case of Thalys) and in Belgium and on to France (in case of ICE). So this scores 🟠 – some room for improvement.

The European Commission did something like this in a one-off report in 2018 entitled “Comprehensive analysis of the existing cross-border rail transport connections and missing links on the internal EU borders” – you can read that here – PDF is 9.2mb. It’s an interesting piece of work, but is a one-off snapshot of the situation – maps like this are helpful – but would need to be updated annually:

So how about it, DG MOVE of the European Commission?

At the very least we need to know what is and is not working in cross border rail in Europe – and an annual index of this nature would help. Some European Countries, disappointed by their low ranking, might even be encouraged to do something about their low or worsening position. And an index like this might be a more lasting impact of the EU Year of Rail than the memories of the Connecting Europe Express.

* – an earlier version of this blog post stated that Infrabel was responsible for rescuing failed trains. This was not correct – SNCB/NMBS is responsible for this. The text has been corrected accordingly.

[UPDATE 25.10.2021, 1615]
An idea along these lines featured in the Decision EU 2020/2228 on a European Year of Rail (2021) – full text here. This is the relevant text – my emphasis:

Article 3

2. The Commission shall consider initiating, during the European Year:

(a) a study on the feasibility of creating a European label to promote goods and products transported by rail so as to encourage businesses to switch their transport to rail; and

(b) a feasibility study with a view to introducing a rail connectivity index, with the aim of categorising the level of integration achieved through the use of services on the rail network and showing the potential of rail to compete with other modes of transport.

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