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Next stop: A single European railroad system

Steven Beardsley
September 2, 2021

The EU wants to make rail travel more attractive to passengers and companies by the end of the decade. The Connecting Europe Express leaving Lisbon is rolling in the right direction to smooth some bumpy connections. 

Portugal Station Oriente in Lissabon | Connecting Europe Express
Oriente Station in LisbonImage: Edson De Souza/TheNEWS2/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

As the Connecting Europe Express pulls out of Lisbon, Portugal, on Thursday to begin its 20,000-kilometer (12,400-mile) journey across the Continent, it does so as an ambassador of the EU's rail aspirations — as well as its challenges. 

The first of which will emerge a few days into the journey when an entirely new train will be needed at the French border, where the rail gauge changes.    

Track size is one of the oldest headaches of running trains across European borders. It's just part of the broader challenge facing Europe, where dozens of rail networks developed independently and still interact only begrudgingly, offering a hodgepodge of passenger rules, ticketing systems and timetables.  

The EU now believes the momentum is shifting. Legislation continues to pry open the most stubborn national networks to competition. More travelers are seeking out rail as an alternative to flying. Pilot projects are meanwhile testing new technologies in digitalization and automation.   

"Rail has major advantages," Carlo Borghini, executive director of the EU investment project Shift2Rail, which is funding many of those projects, told DW. "But if rail is underused due to a different number of barriers that are still present, then clearly these advantages are lost." 

A climate for expansion 

The Connecting Europe Express is meant to highlight those advantages. A one-month journey that requires three separate trains to cross 26 countries, it's the flagship of what the EU has dubbed the European Year of Rail.  

Brussels believes it's the right time to trumpet one of its oldest forms of public transport. Its future mobility strategy released late last year calls for a broad shift to rail. By decade's end, the EU wants to double the amount of high-speed rail across the Continent, with a focus on connecting big cities. 

The bloc's latest legislative package for rail carriers also went into effect this year. The new rules are meant to advance competition in the sector, allowing, for example, carriers based in one member country to operate across the bloc. 

Yet EU climate goals are driving most of the current optimism.  

All aboard the night train

Rail accounts for less than 1% of transport-related greenhouse gases in the EU. Air travel, by comparison, accounts for 3.8%, a difference singled out by Brussels and factored in by more passengers traveling over land.    

"We see people keen to reduce their impact on climate change wanting an alternative to flying over increasingly long distances," rail expert Mark Smith told DW.  

Moving in the night 

Smith, who runs the online site The Man in Seat 61, is closely following the development of Europe's night trains. Once a staple of Europe's rail landscape, the overnight routes dwindled as high-speed rail slashed travel time and cheap airlines made big inroads. 

Now, just a few years after major carriers like Deutsche Bahn sold off their sleeper wagons, night trains are seeing a turnaround.   

Austrian rail carrier ÖBB started its new Vienna-Amsterdam route this summer and plans to open three more routes by 2023, including connections to Paris and Rome. The company says its current overnight routes are often overbooked and that it expects to double ridership by 2025.  

Smaller players are also getting involved. Swedish operator Snalltaget opened an overnight route between Stockholm and Berlin. Dutch startup European Sleeper is partnering with existing rail firms to forge its own night train network. Its first overnight route between Belgium and Prague is set for an April start.  

One of Austria's ÖBB night trains at a station
The new night train from Austria's ÖBB is looking for more travelersImage: Christina Küfner/DW

The economics of night trains are still difficult. Loads are limited and rolling stock hard to find. The high access fees for tracks around Europe meanwhile bite deep into margins.  

ÖBB Chief Executive Andreas Matthä told an audience this week that the branch needed fairer market conditions to compete with cheap flights, chief among them a sales tax exemption on international trains, a benefit already enjoyed by international flights.  

Taking on cheap airlines 

Smith also believes market advantages are distorting competition.  

"It's not a level playing a field," he said. "And there does need to be action to level up that playing field so that air and rail can compete fairly. At the moment, it's the least climate-friendly mode of travel that's getting all the breaks." 

Whether EU countries are ready to take on popular cheap airlines, which have been hard-hit by the pandemic, remains to be seen.  

The bloc recently proposed ending the industry's fuel tax exemption as part of its Fit for 55 roadmap for reaching its 2030 climate goals. An overhaul of its emissions trading scheme, which is also called for in the roadmap, would also force airlines to pay more. 

Trains currently move 7% of travelers in the EU and about 18% of goods, figures that could rise if flights become more expensive.  

Some member states are mulling their own initiatives. French lawmakers voted this year to ban some short-haul flights. German politicians have debated a similar move in the run-up to general elections.  

Making the connection  

If passengers and companies are to go willingly to rail, the experience will have to be a better one, experts like Smith and Borghini say.  

Pulling together disparate timetables and ticketing procedures can make journeys smoother and reduce delays, they argue. Creating a common set of rules and traveler rights should put more power in passengers' hands. 

As head of Shift2Rail, Borghini oversees a €900-million ($1.06-billion) fund that's accelerating the technical projects necessary for more efficient rail, from automated wagon-couplers to noise-abatement technology to future signaling infrastructure.  

"We need to have something like we have for air traffic management, an integrated system," Borghini said.  

Technologies like real-time satellite tracking and automation offered new solutions, he said. The investment is considerable, but more countries are interested. Borghini said several EU members were looking at using the bloc's pandemic recovery funds for rail expansion.  

With the aviation and automobile industries also racing to develop sustainable technologies, rail's chance is now, Borghini argued.  

"If you want to have a different concept of mobility, sustainable mobility, we need to do it this decade," he said. "Otherwise, other solutions will come."