Another day, another earnest column in a broadsheet newspaper listing the problems with Europe’s railways – this time it’s Die Zeit.
We should fly less, we need more high speed trains, we need more night trains, plans for more have come to nothing, why is infra investment in Germany so slow, ooooh look you can get to London in 2 hours from Brussels by train but not from Frankfurt (tip: look at a map, it’s further).
Anyone who has travelled a little bit by train in Europe could assemble such a list.
But why do we have these problems? And, more notably, why does a journalist in a serious publication simply get away with listing the problems and does not even begin to ask why these problems exist, and what could be done to address them?
The answer is, I think, that neither in Germany nor in France (the two countries where I follow the railway debate most closely), and definitely not at EU level, do we have any sort of coherent intellectual debate about railway transport. In as far as there is any explanation ever offered for the dysfunction it is usually “we liberalised and that broke it” (or “we did not liberalise enough, so should”), or “we did not invest enough in the infrastructure”.
But those explanations fall short.
We do not have a coherent view on what we want railways to be, Europe wide. Who are they to serve? On what sorts of routes? Who should benefit from them? Indeed, more fundamentally, what is a good train?
Or – to put it another way – I’m much more concerned that the small town in Sachsen, Seifhennersdorf, does not have any train at all via Varnsdorf (Czechia) to Zittau (Germany), than I am by the absence of a direct daytime TGV or ICE between Paris and Berlin – because changing in Frankfurt ought to not be a showstopper. But I am pretty sure a Zeit journalist writing about railways has never been to Seifhennersdorf (although I did take a New York Times journalist there and it turned out to be quite interesting).
Once you know what you want, you can then begin to work out how to get it. Can it be done profitably or not? If yes, then are there barriers to entry that need reducing if you conclude competition is a viable option? If a line is not profitable, then is a public service, publicly owned railway the best choice? Or is competitive tendering? And – before you come to expensive infrastructure investments – is there anything you can do to increase your capacity without needing new lines? Things like more off peak travel, longer higher capacity trains, or routing trains onto under-used routes.
The problem is I see it is much of what we read about railways does not try to answer these questions. Reporting instead is either “here are a list of problems” or “here is some wonderful utopian plan for the future”, and reporting is mostly based on the rather privileged standpoint of the author – capital city, high speed. And if a journalist then tries to find an expert to help with a piece, they are likely to end up with some gloss from politicians or railway companies, not some intellectually rooted rationale to explain what is going on. And – in Germany in particular – do mainstream publications even have dedicated reporters who understand railways in the way that, for example, Olivier Razemon of Le Monde does?
And so the cycle repeats – from week to week, article to article. With railways simultaneously being the most everyday thing to report on (sure, we’ve all taken trains! I can report on trains!) but without any coherent wider framework into which journalists can fit their reporting.
What, I wonder, can we do about that?