On Friday I was asked for the first time to present my Trains for Europe campaign at an old style offline conference in Brussels – at Friends of Europe’s European Young Leaders event. I am an alumnus of that programme, but back when I was in the scheme it was in my capacity as a blogger.
As is often the case at events, the questions over a coffee in the margins are often the ones that are the more revealing and challenging ones. “Whatever brought you to the idea of running a campaign about railways?” I was asked.
It is a really interesting question because I have never worked for any company or organisation remotely connected to railways. It looks like an odd fit.
But the crux of it is very simple: it is because the personal is political.
The roots of it all are quite obvious. First, I like travelling by train – it is the most civilised way to travel. Second, it is much more environmentally sustainable than flying.
As a self employed person who has lived in Brussels, London, Copenhagen and Berlin in the past decade, and has throughout that period had clients all over (predominantly Western) Europe, I’ve travelled a hell of a lot by train. Pre-pandemic I was forking out €4000 a year in rail tickets.
And when you travel that much by train – especially cross-border that is almost universally worse than nationally – you begin to see what’s wrong with European railways. You start to get angry. You start to see that neither the railway industry or political institutions are taking the correct decisions to put things right.
And you see it visually and viscerally when it is you struggling to book tickets because data is not available, when it is you stuck somewhere because a train breaks down, or you failing to get somewhere because a rail company inexplicably cancelled services on a route.
It’s personal. And that turns you into a political activist of sorts.
And so to the European Young Leaders event. One of the fellow speakers on the panel about railways was Alberto Mazzola, Executive Director of the Community of European Railways (CER). But Mr Mazzola was not at the event in person, but instead was dialling in from… Vienna Airport!
And that despite member railway of Community of European Railways – ÖBB – running a Vienna-Brussels night train. And when in the substantive discussion it was clear that Mazzola has never tried different rail booking platforms either.
“That was the moment of the whole event,” a fellow attendee said to me as we said our goodbyes. “What an awful impression to give.”
It’s at moments like that when I know this whole endeavour is worthwhile.
(Post written on board ICE 557 Köln Hbf – Berlin Hbf on the way home, running 25 minutes late due to a technical fault with the train)