THE CENTREPIECE of this year’s European Year of Rail was the “Connecting Europe Express”. Between September and October its cars whisked EU officials across the continent on a whistle-stop tour promoting the future of railways. But the train itself was a nostalgia trip: most of its wagons were built in the 1980s, since more recent models were less likely to be certified by the rail-safety boards of all 26 countries it visited. Without arm-twisting by the European Commission, said Alberto Mazzola of the CER, a rail-industry group, the trip would have been impossible.
It was a classic European story. The EU has grand ambitions for trains as a way of cutting carbon emissions, and its national railway networks are strong. But rail is the form of transport that requires the most co-ordination, and on a continent split into dozens of countries that is a problem. Governments pour money into domestic high-speed lines, but often leave just a winding bit of track linking to the neighbours. For the national carriers that dominate the sector, such as Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and France’s SNCF, cross-border trips are a side business and competitors a nuisance. “The single European railway area exists in terms of a market opening,” says Kristian Schmidt, the European Commission’s director of land transport. ”But we have a long way to go.”
The EU’s mobility strategy calls for making all scheduled travel of 500km (310 mikes) or less carbon-neutral by 2030. The most obvious way to do that is with electric passenger trains. Even accounting for use of fossil fuels in power generation, trains average about one-fifth the greenhouse-gas emissions per passenger-kilometre of aeroplanes and less than half that of buses, says the European Environment Agency.
Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Yet only 8% of the distance travelled by land in the EU is by rail. Even in the most train-happy countries, Austria and the Netherlands, the figures are 13% and 11%. In those countries, more than 75% of land travel is done by car. Statistics on cross-border rail are patchy, but EU figures show that people made only 6.5m international trips by train from Germany in 2019. They made 110m by air, just to other countries in the EU. Shifting a significant share to rail will require huge investments.
More fast trains would help. The EU wants to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030. Because they deliver passengers to city centres rather than airports, trains can out-compete flights on routes of up to 800km, provided they run at 200kph or more. Flights between Milan and Rome fell by more than half after a high-speed rail line opened in 2007. The Eurostar carried nearly 80% of traffic from London to Brussels and Paris in 2019, and a big share of those travelling between Paris and Frankfurt go on French TGV or German ICE trains.
But such international high-speed routes are few. Spain and France each have extensive high-speed networks, but to get from one to the other trains must creep along old-fashioned tracks. France and Italy have scarcely begun tunnelling under the Alps to link their networks. High-speed routes between Berlin and central-European cities such as Prague and Vienna are still in the planning stage.
These tracks are part of a web of high-priority transport corridors known as TEN–T first sketched by the EU in the 1990s. But national governments, which bear most of the costs, have been slow to pony up the money. The EU’s own Connecting Europe Facility and other programmes budget €86bn ($100bn) for rail from 2021-27. But high-speed track can cost more than €40m per kilometre. On most routes countries would be better off improving their conventional networks, according to the European Court of Auditors.
A less costly approach is to bring back the original long-distance rail technology: the night train. Sleeper cars were disappearing in Europe by the mid-2010s, but were revived between Brussels and Vienna in 2016 by öBB, Austria’s national carrier. They have become a romantic fad, popping up again in France, Germany and Sweden. But their carrying capacity is small.
Berth of a nation
National divisions have always been a problem for rail. Sleeper trains were brought to Europe by Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banking heir who fell for the Pullman car while travelling in America in the 1860s. It took him years of negotiations with various governments to set up the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lit, which ran sleeper coaches that switched between national operators’ locomotives when they crossed borders.
In some respects European cross-border rail has gone backwards. The trip from Brussels to Luxembourg can take an hour longer than it did in 1980. Along the German-Czech border some timetables are not much better than those in Hendschel’s Telegraph of 1914. When Germany’s transport minister last year announced “Trans Europ Express 2.0”, it raised the question of why the original Trans Europ Express trains immortalised by Kraftwerk in 1977 were abandoned by the early 1990s.
One difficulty in reviving them is compatibility. Europe’s electric railways use four different voltage levels. Signalling and safety systems are even worse: almost every country initially had its own. The European Rail Agency is gradually enforcing common specifications, but that effort has been under way since 1996. At Europe’s edges, even the width of the track varies: the Baltic countries use the Russian Empire’s wider gauge, and Spain and Portugal have one of their own.
Private rail entrepreneurs say that traffic would rise if countries actually lived up to their obligations to allow competition. Under EU law all member states have unbundled their rail infrastructure from their train operators, and must let outside players run on their tracks. But some countries are in practice more open than others. Germany’s track owner is an arm of Deutsche Bahn and charges high service fees, which tends to deter competitors. Sweden charges only for the added maintenance that new users require, fostering competition from newcomers such as FlixTrain and MTR that has cut prices.
Then there is ticketing. Because systems are incompatible, only a few agencies sell rail tickets across the entire continent. As for refunds, operators are responsible only for the portion of the trip on their own trains. High-speed rail tickets typically cost far more than a budget airfare on the same route. That is unlikely to change while jet fuel and most airline emissions are tax-free.
If Europe wants passengers to shift to rail, it will need to tax airlines’ carbon emissions properly. Until then, many passengers will think of trains nostalgically. At a Connecting Europe Express event in Berlin, Christopher Irwin of the European rail passengers’ union reflected that he first travelled to the city by rail from Britain in the 1960s. “It was easier back then.” ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Disoriented express”