Next year will be designated the ‘European Year of Rail’, after EU negotiators agreed on Thursday (12 November) to back a train-travel-boosting plan.
Transport is now the only sector of the European economy where greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, so the European Commission proposed in March as part of its Green Deal planning to give train travel extra attention over the course of next year.
On Thursday evening, European Council representatives and MEPs agreed with the plan and brokered a provisional agreement that will see the calendar packed full of schemes designed to boost the amount of people and goods shifted by rail.
European Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said she was “thrilled to announce” the end of trilateral talks.
German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer added that “rail is the answer to many critical issues in the area of mobility, such as climate neutrality, energy efficiency, crisis resilience and safety”.
“The Year of Rail aims to give a boost to the sector and to encourage more tourists, business people and manufacturers to choose the train,” he said.
Germany, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, is laying the groundwork for more pro-rail policymaking: earlier this year, Scheuer presented a strategy that would see the iconic Trans-Europ Express train network resurrected across the continent.
The Bundesrepublik was also among the 25 signatories of a declaration in June that called for more coordination of cross-border train travel and more focus for sleeper services, which have started to enjoy somewhat of a renaissance lately.
Karima Delli, the chair of the Parliament’s transport committee, insisted that governments and rail firms should focus on “relaunching rail freight, fostering night trains, as well as reopening abandoned local and regional rail lines”.
As part of the year’s festivities, a full list of which still needs to be drawn up, the Commission will be asked to propose two new ideas that should make it easier for businesses to use rail cargo services and passengers to use Europe’s train networks.
The first study should look at designing a “European label to promote goods”, while the second would consider a “rail connectivity index”, along the lines of a database that already exists for aviation links.
Rail has in recent years had to contend with infrastructure funding challenges, although the pot of cash available swelled slightly in November when the European Investment Bank said it would scrap support for new airports and impose stricter criteria for motorway funding.
2021 is also set to be the first full year when the rules of the Fourth Railway Package apply, which will mean a more open rail market and, hopefully, reduced administrative costs. Countries like France and Spain are already liberalising their networks in order to comply.
It has been a busy month for the sector and EU policymaking. In early October, a deal was struck on an update to the bloc’s rail passenger rights codex, however, it left many rail advocates disappointed.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]