‘European Year of Rail’ fails to stem train company COVID losses

“Railways have the capacity to support both recovery and Europe’s sustainable transition but we need to ensure that they emerge strong enough from this crisis to do so," said Alberto Mazzola, CER's executive director. [EPA-EFE/MOURAD BALTI TOUATI]

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt by European train companies, with 2021 figures released by the rail sector showing losses across the board, despite EU attempts to promote rail transport.

Passenger levels are half of what they were before the health crisis, amounting to weekly losses of almost €600 million. Revenues from freight fell from -3% in December 2020 to -10% by April 2021 compared to 2019.

The figures, released by the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure companies (CER) – an industry group representing train companies including Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, France’s SNCF, and Italy’s Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane – show a continuing trend from last year, when it was announced that rail companies had lost €26 billion as a result of the pandemic.

Rail sector posts multi-billion euro losses amid pandemic in 2020

European rail companies lost a staggering €26 billion in 2020 as the COVID-19 epidemic took a heavy toll on passenger and freight revenues across the continent, boding ill for 2021, designated to be the ‘European year of rail’.

Organisations that manage rail infrastructure, such as railway lines, equipment, and control systems, have also experienced a downturn, with losses rising from -8% in summer 2020 to -13%.

Alberto Mazzola, CER’s executive director, called for “substantial” compensation of current losses and lower charges to help the sector get through the COVID-driven downturn.

“Railways have the capacity to support both recovery and Europe’s sustainable transition but we need to ensure that they emerge strong enough from this crisis to do so,” he said in a statement.

The losses come amid the European Year of Rail, an EU-initiative to encourage travellers to choose trains over more polluting mobility methods, thereby cutting transport emissions and giving a shot in the arm to the rail sector.

However, pandemic restrictions across most European countries have left many of the planned events to celebrate the year either cancelled or postponed.

The ‘Connecting Europe Express’, an EU-launched train that would visit cities across the continent to celebrate the benefits of travelling by rail, has already had its departure date postponed due to health concerns.

Given the limited success of the European Year of Rail so far, companies have called on the EU to extend the initiative to 2022.

“We can but note that the constraining sanitary context is impeding the full deployment of stakeholders’ activities to promote rail,” rail associations wrote in an open letter sent to the leaders of the European Commission, Parliament, and Council.

But some lawmakers say that 2022 would be best dedicated to celebrating air travel, another transport sector that has suffered from a plunge in passenger levels.

In March, MEPs from the European Parliament’s Sky & Space intergroup penned a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean inviting them to declare 2022 the “European Year of Aviation”.

An official decision on next year’s designation has yet to be made.

Rail and aviation set for showdown over 2022 'European Year of' status

Rail associations are calling on the European Commission to extend the current “European Year of Rail” designation to 2022 as the ongoing pandemic has disrupted this year’s planned activities. But some MEPs argue that next year should be the “European Year of Aviation” to support the struggling airline sector.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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