Commission wants to declare 2021 the ‘year of rail’

2021 is set to focus on rail. [Photo: European Commission]

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’.

Transport’s share of greenhouse gas emissions is still growing and already accounts for about a quarter of the EU’s climate impact. Now the Commission has turned to rail to try and rein in the sector’s carbon footprint.

In the shadow of a parallel announcement on the new Climate Law, aimed at making the EU carbon neutral by 2050, the Commission said rail should feature heavily in 2021’s agenda in order to promote it “as a sustainable, innovative and safe mode of transport”.

The EU executive envisages an entire raft of special events, campaigns and initiatives focused on train travel.

“There’s no doubt that railway transport means huge benefits in most areas: sustainability, safety, even speed, once it’s organised and engineered according to 21st-century principles,” said EU transport Commissioner Adina Vălean.

The Romanian official added that “the European Year of Rail is not a random event. It
comes at an appropriate time, when the EU needs this kind of collective undertaking.” She also called a well-connected European network “an exercise in political cohesion”.

According to EU data, rail is the only transport mode in the bloc that has managed to reduce its emissions while preserving growth. That is largely due to increased electrification and cleaner energy sources, provided by renewable energy and coal power phase-outs.

Transport initiatives were not among the headline ideas included in December’s Green Deal though. The Commission will look into rolling out the EU’s carbon market to shipping, as well as drafting a new sustainable transport strategy, due towards the end of 2020.

Rail will feature in its plans though, particularly when it comes to hauling cargo around Europe. The Green Deal says that a substantial part of the 75% of freight currently sent by truck and van should shift to rail and inland waterways.

Industry group CER said “we very much support the Commission’s proposal to make 2021 the European Year of Rail. This will be the perfect occasion to showcase rail’s unbeatable advantages when it comes to modernising and greening Europe’s mobility sector.”

Next year marks a number of rail anniversaries: it is the first full year of implementation for the EU’s current slate of railway rules, French high-speed train service TGV turns 40 and it will be 175 years since the first rail link between two capitals opened, between Brussels and Paris.

Large scale rail links are starting to find political support across the continent. The UK’s High Speed 2 project recently secured government support, while on 2 March Germany and the Czech Republic agreed to improve the line between Prague and Dresden.

When built, the current 4 hour 30 minutes journey time from Berlin to the Czech capital would be slashed to just two and a half hours.

But clean mobility group T&E was less enthusiastic about the idea: “travelling by train is one of the cleanest ways to get around. But we don’t need a ‘year of rail’, we need a ‘year of rail passengers’!”

A spokesperson told EURACTIV that “the Commission will need to force railway companies to starting thinking European, offering a much improved service, for example making it as easy to book rail travel as air travel.”

Support for the Commission’s idea could be easy to find in the European Parliament, if concrete actions are taken. Transport committee chair Karima Delli (Greens) is a noted fan of rail travel, particularly night trains, which she insists should be rolled out to more cities.

“Although we could welcome such an initiative, it should result in facts. We indeed cannot be fine with an empty announcement, but we must set up concrete actions to support and foster rail transport,” Delli said in a statement.

She added that work should be stepped up on open files like passenger rights rules, as well as on mooted initiatives like taxing jet fuel.

Last year, the French MEP urged the incoming Commission to propose an ‘aviation package’, to complement the existing Railway Package, so that aviation can be priced more along sustainability lines.

Delli recently admonished Lyon’s football team for taking a private jet instead of a train to go to a match in Paris and has suggested that footballers, as environmental ambassadors, should commit themselves to flying only when a journey is more than 600km.

The Commission’s 2021 plans for rail now need to be adopted by the Parliament and Council.

Next Commission urged to launch ‘aviation package’

The next European Commission should make curbing aviation emissions a priority in its work programme for the next five years, according to lawmakers at a special summit on Thursday (20 June) dedicated to taxing flights.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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