1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

EU launches Year of Rail to bolster ailing sector

Sergio Matalucci
January 15, 2021

The rail sector has paid a high price for lockdowns across Europe. The number of passengers has declined steeply, impacting rail operators. The EU executive is now launching a series of initiatives to support the sector.

Passengers entering a German high-speed train at Berlin's central station.
The EU campaign aims to make more Europeans change their ways of travelingImage: Imago Images/F. Sorge

The European Commission (EC) launched the European Year of Rail on January 1 to encourage a modal shift toward railway services and cushion the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on train operators.

"Of course, the European Year of Rail has a symbolic significance, but in 2021 we will undertake both regulatory as well as awareness-raising activities," EU Transport Commissioner Adina-Ioana Valean, told DW.

In the last months, freight services have been boosted, while the number of passengers has decreased significantly.

"Since the coronavirus arrived in Europe, freight services have continued, with punctuality significantly increasing — less passenger traffic has brought greater capacity. Now that we have seen what is possible, we must ensure that this level of performance is maintained," said Valean.

Passenger numbers tank

Passenger transport has been battered by the COVID-19 crisis, with numbers plunging in the four most important European markets. According to Eurostat, passenger numbers went down by over 77% in France, Italy and Spain in the second quarter of 2020 year on year, while Germany registered a 59% drop.

One lonely passenger walks through a Munich train station with a placard next to her demanding to obey social-distancing rules
The pandemic is threatening to undo progress on greener traffic as people shun public services resorting to their cars againImage: Imago Images/R. Peters

In the third quarter, the year-on-year plunge ranged from 48% in Italy to 33% in France. The situation was even more dramatic in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the number of passengers in the Netherlands (traditionally the fifth-largest market in the EU) remained fairly stable throughout 2020.

Reduced passenger volumes pose an existential risk for financially fragile train companies, with possible repercussions on the EU rail market as a whole.

"There is also a risk that small operators suffer more from the effects of the pandemic which may hamper market liberalization," the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) told DW.

A handful of EU countries, like Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, have supported train operators.

Since December 13, rail operators are allowed to offer passenger services in any other member state. Hence, EU companies enjoying government aid and seeing a more restricted decline in passenger numbers will secure a long-term strategic edge.

The real price of transportation

The EU adopted a Mobility Strategy in December, aimed at modernizing the timetabling process and ticketing, while improving capacity and performance.

"We can better align the price of using transport with its societal costs, including pollution. This would reduce the cost disadvantage of greener transport alternatives, such as rail. As foreseen in our Mobility Strategy, all external costs of transport within the EU shall be covered by the transport users by 2050 at the latest," said Valean.

The Commissioner argues that raiway systems should be among the primary beneficiaries of the Recovery and Resilience Facility — an EU financial support program aimed at making the bloc's economies more resilient through public investments and reforms, notably in green and digital projects. Better infrastructure is needed to increase capacity and connections.

The transport sector accounts for around 25% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. Rail carries 7% of all passengers and 11% of all goods in the EU but is responsible for less than 0.5% of the bloc's transport-related greenhouse gas emissions.

2050 targets in sight

"We want high-speed rail traffic to double across Europe by 2030 and to triple by 2050. High-speed rail plays an important role as an alternative to short-haul flights, and we have good examples in this respect," said Valean.

As awareness about climate change increases, a modal shift from road to rail is more likely. The completion of the core network by 2030, including the Brenner Base tunnel, the Fehmarn Belt link and the Lyon-Turin line, will facilitate the switch.

2021 is also the first year of full implementation of the Fourth Railway Package, a series of policies aimed at creating a Single European Railway Area through simplified procedures and reduced costs for intra-EU trains.

"Our EU Agency for Railways is now the single entry point for the certification of rail vehicles and railway traffic operators," Valean told DW.

Batteries and hydrogen

The European Commission has singled out digitization as an apt instrument to promote the fast deployment of new railway solutions.

"We are planning a European Partnership on Rail Research and Innovation. As a next step, we will make a proposal for adoption by the Council [of the European Union]. This is part of a broader research initiative under our Horizon Europe program," said Valean, adding that the future partnership will create synergies with similar EU initiatives to support hydrogen and battery technologies.

Deutschland Wasserstoffzug
Germany's first hydrogen-powered commuter train, made by French manufacturer Alstom, has entered service in 2018Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Stollarz

As ERA calls on politicians to do away with kerosene subsidies and lower rail track charges, train manufacturers foresee an increase in "greener" trains.

"In Europe, 39% of the main railway lines are not electrified (80,000 kilometers, 49,709 miles). Traffic on these lines is provided by diesel trains or locomotives. It is expected that by 2035, more than 4,500 regional diesel trains in Europe will have to be replaced by emissions-free solutions," an Alstom spokesperson told DW.

The France-based manufacturer currently holds the lead in hydrogen trains vis-a-vis its European competitors. Trains fuelled by hydrogen or batteries are the two top contenders to replace diesel trains. The two technologies will split the market depending on existing infrastructure, terrain, and required range.