The debate about the new EU budget is still ongoing. A lot is likely to come out for traffic. Not because of the street, but because of the railroad – and the new, old affection for the night train.

Night trains are currently making a big comeback. In many European countries, people are now back on nostalgic travel while sleeping. After 16 years of interruption, there is, for example, another night connection between Vienna and Brussels. The first night train left the Austrian capital in mid-January.

The Austrian railway company ÖBB operates the route and plans to connect Vienna with Amsterdam by night train by the end of the year. For some time now, the ÖBB Nightjet has also been traveling between Berlin and Zurich. The state-owned company is not the only railway company that sees an opportunity in the new preference of Europeans and the growing attention to the environment.

Austria night train Nightjet (ÖBB / Harald Eisenberger)Successful on the move: the ÖBB night train

In 2017, the environmental impact of transport in the EU was 28 percent above the level of 1990. The trend is to be reversed with the so-called European Green Deal, which is now under discussion with the Commission. “With the Green Deal, we want the transport sector in Europe to become part of our efforts to combat climate change and help us to do so,” said Adina-Ioana Valean, the new EU Transport Commissioner, DW. “All modes of transport should contribute to this, but I think the railways play a crucial role because we are dealing with a sustainable form of transport for people and goods.” 

In terms of transport, road transport is the largest CO2 polluter in Europe (73 percent), followed by air transport (13) and seafaring (13). The railway with its high degree of electrification is in fourth place with 1.6 percent.

According to Valeant, the current EU programs to promote the railways are not seen as a bone of contention within the Union. “We are looking forward to a good traffic budget as part of the upcoming multi-year financial planning.”  

Big differences

However, the Commissioner points to large differences between the EU members in the rail network. Less developed regions should, therefore, receive funding from existing funding instruments such as the Connecting Europe Facility and the Cohesion Fund.

Adina-Ioana Valean (left) (picture-alliance / AA / D. Aydemir)“Aid in the fight against climate change” – EU Transport Commissioner Adina-Ioana Valeant

However, these are not the main priorities for the Commissioner – at least not at the moment. “We now have to understand where there is a bottleneck in the networks and how much investment is required. So it is not the time for new goals; we need a detailed analysis beforehand.” First, the so-called Fourth Railway Package would be implemented, which should liberalize the market and increase competition for the benefit of travelers.

More competition

“Competition will increase,” said Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of the European Railway Union (ERA), in an interview with DW, “especially after June 2020, when the remaining EU members will adopt the new rules that will apply to the first have been using eight EU countries since June 2019. ”  

Doppelbauer gives examples: “Italy’s Trenitalia has applied to ERA for a safety certificate and vehicle registration so that it can also be active in France. The French SNCF and Trenitalia want to enter the Spanish market from June 2020.”

ERA has two tasks: The agency should implement the EU rules for compatibility and security. Since June 2019, it has also issued so-called single safety certificates and approvals for the rolling stock. “This means that a single approval from ERA is sufficient for trains traveling in several countries.”

However, the ERA director sees a lot of room for improvement. “For example, the first night train from Vienna to Brussels has to stop in Aachen for 30 minutes because there are problems with the compatibility of the technology. The driver must also be replaced because he has to speak Flemish.”

You get what you invest for

For dual builders, national connections like the one between Barcelona and Madrid are already showing that it is possible to “replace less environmentally friendly domestic flights by reducing travel times and prices.”

Italy - Milan train station (picture-alliance / dpa / D. Kalker)Fit for the future? Milan train station

The competitiveness of the railways compared to the aircraft, therefore, depends on the investments in the rail network, and these lie in the competence of the individual EU members. While countries like Italy continue to cut back on rail investments, countries like Germany are getting more involved, even though rail fares there have recently dropped. For example, last month the federal government announced investment projects worth over 86 billion euros, which are to be implemented over the next ten years.

“That is an additional expenditure of 64 euros per capita per year, and that brings Germany to around 140 euros, which is still not top class if you compare it with the per capita expenditure for the railways in Austria or Switzerland, “says Doppelbauer. However, customer satisfaction largely depends on the level of investment per capita. The ERA director points out that with rail spending of 365 euros per capita, Switzerland is number one in Europe in terms of rail customer satisfaction in 2018. “Austria was in second place in customer satisfaction and second place in expenditure with EUR 218 per capita. In Germany, that figure was EUR 77 per year.”

The challenge of sustainable travel

“The majority of travel agencies are currently not offering the train to reach a vacation destination,” said Libo Lochman, executive director of the European Rail Community, DW. “But we are not starting from scratch. The travel agencies are already offering the Euro Pass, which enables holidaymakers to travel through Europe four or seven days a month with a single ticket.”

Nice train station from Moscow (DW / A. Brenner)The role model for many regions? Train between Nice and Moscow

It is even more difficult for freight transport. “We see an increase in passenger traffic, but we don’t see the same development in freight,” said Lochman. “At the moment, the share of rail in European freight traffic is decreasing, in 2018 it went from 18 percent to less than 17 percent,” reports James Nix, head of freight at Transport & Environment, a lobby group for clean freight transport, says Nix that the lion’s share of domestic freight traffic is currently on the road, but “very large sums are being invested in rail transport.” “The Green Deal intends to bring as much freight from the road to the rail as possible. But for that you have to improve the cross-border rail networks in Europe, “says Commissioner Valeant. Connections and capacities that combine different systems must be improved, processes at borders must be accelerated. 

All in all, however, the outlook is not that bad, because strong support now comes not only from environmentalists but also from industry. “EU regulation will also help to define uniform technical standards for the rail sector,” said Director-General of the International Union of Railways, Francois Davenne, DW. And he believes that the Green Deal will have implications for railways in many regions of the world – not just in Europe.


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