24 countries sign pledge to boost international rail routes

Transport ministers want to make international rail services more competitive. [Photo: BalkansCat / Shutterstock]

Updated with extra info after transport minister meeting

Twenty-four European countries agreed on Wednesday (3 June) to work together on international rail transport and make it “an attractive alternative” over distances where it is currently not competitive.

Transport and infrastructure ministers from across Europe have said they want to build an “agenda for international passenger rail transport” using existing EU tools and fold those services into the bloc’s Green Deal in a “comprehensive way”.

Every EU member apart from island nations Cyprus and Malta, Estonia, as well as rotating Council presidency holder Croatia, signed up to the pledge ahead of the transport council meeting that kicks off later on Thursday (4 June).

Non-EU member Switzerland also joined the call. In the final declaration, Norway’s signature was also included, bringing the grand total to 25.

According to the joint letter sent to EU transport boss Adina Vălean, “international passenger rail transport is presently not performing to its potential within the EU. Domestic rail markets are much further developed.”

The ministers cite the Green Deal’s carbon neutrality objective, the continued rise of greenhouse gas emissions from transport and the European Commission’s intention to declare 2021 ‘the year of rail’, among the reasons to double down on international services.

Commission wants to declare 2021 the 'year of rail'

The European Commission said on Wednesday (4 March) that train travel should be given special attention in 2021 as part of the EU executive’s Green Deal environmental agenda, suggesting that next year should be the ‘European Year of Rail’.

A new agenda should “offer the legal […] framework for attractive alternatives to make railway become an attractive alternative in distances in which it is not currently competitive”, the letter adds. The idea is to agree on a calendar of milestones within 12 months.

Issues such as complex ticket buying systems for multi-leg journeys with different companies should be addressed by digital solutions, it adds. Frequent rail travellers have long called for an online platform similar to ‘Skyscanner’ to be set up, perhaps by the EU.

The ministers also insist that international services can increase their share of passenger numbers in the 300-800km category, suggesting that rail will be taking the fight to short-haul flights, which generally fall under the 1,000km mark.

Research by UBS recently showed that business travellers would put up with a trip time of four hours, while leisure travellers would tolerate six on average. It is in that window where international routes, especially high-speed services, hope to make their stand.

Demand is predicted to increase in the coming years, partly due to the impact of the coronavirus, which could alter travelling habits. The aviation industry estimates that air travel will take no less than three years to recover to pre-outbreak levels.

State interventions in airlines are also changing the game. The French government’s €7 billion rescue package for Air France will obligate the carrier to cut back on domestic routes, opening the door for state-owned firm SNCF to hoover up business.

Rail companies across Europe are not immune to the economic impact of the coronavirus, as their passenger numbers have suffered almost as much as their aviation counterparts. SNCF and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn are both reportedly interested in state aid.

French railways on track to seek virus bailout

France’s state-owned rail company has suffered losses of €2 billion because of the coronavirus outbreak and may need government aid in order to stave off job cuts. An already-agreed bailout for the aviation industry could end up boosting demand.

EU policymakers have attempted to do their part to help train operators ride out the slump by allowing member states extra time to implement the conditions of the Fourth Railway Package. A July deadline has been shifted back to October.

The declaration also says that EU member states and third countries should work together to improve international services, citing the Eurostar’s London-Amsterdam link as an example. It suggests that the UK, despite ceasing to be an EU member, will be involved.

Obstacles to a full-blown rail revolution still exist, chief among which is the issue of funding expensive infrastructure and buying rolling stock to ply newly formed routes.

Under the Commission’s latest draft budget proposal, the bloc’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) is set to get an extra €1.5 billion over the next seven years. But no specific funding was provided by its €750bn virus recovery scheme.

The head of rail lobby group CER, Libor Lochman, said the fund “should enable movement towards green mobility, and ensure that the improvements in air quality for cities are maintained.”

He added that the European Council should tweak the proposals so that the fund and budget can help ”reinforce public transport such as rail to match citizens’ ambition for a more sustainable society.”

EU heads of state and government are due to meet virtually on 19 June for “thorough preparation” ahead of their next meeting, which could be held physically for the first time since the pandemic hit Europe.

Planes vs trains: High-speed rail set for coronavirus dividend

Europe’s demand for rail travel will increase over the next decade, according to new analysis that cites the public’s new-found appreciation for cleaner air and climate issues as a result of the virus outbreak. Airlines are predicted to be the main loser of the train resurgence.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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