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

Railway companies say that COVID restrictions have made it impossible to celebrate the 2021 European Year of Rail to its full extent. [EPA/REMKO DE WAAL]

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.

Railway organisations say that COVID restrictions have made it impossible to celebrate the European Year of Rail to its full extent.

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

“We therefore urge you to consider extending this outstanding initiative until December 2022 in order to make it an even greater success at the end.”

The European Year of Rail was officially launched on 29 March with a kick-off event that, due to the pandemic, most speakers attended remotely. The goal of the year is to encourage citizens and businesses to opt for rail over more polluting transport modes like air travel, helping Europe to meet its climate targets under the European Green Deal.

The pandemic has badly affected the rail sector, with rail companies posting multi-billion euro losses in 2020. A foreseen recovery in passenger levels has not materialised in 2021, as strict health measures remain in effect across Europe.

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’.

Signed by industry bodies the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), the European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM), and the European Rail Supply Industry Association (UNIFE), the letter notes that the European rail sector invested heavily to make the year a success, but the uncertainty around organising public events has left their efforts in jeopardy.

“There is a very concrete risk that upcoming scheduled events will have to be postponed until the situation improves or just cancelled, and that the allocated resources will be spent in vain – something we can ill afford at a time when railways are suffering huge losses because of COVID-19,” the letter states.

The rail organisations say that a “bespoke social media campaign” launched by EIM and a year-long communications campaign driven by UNIFE to “showcase the benefits of investments in physical and digital rail infrastructure for the society and the economy” have failed to achieve the results hoped for amid the pandemic.

One of the flagship initiatives of the year, the ‘Connecting Europe Express’ – a train that will journey to cities across Europe to highlight the benefits of travelling by rail – has seen its departure date pushed from June to September.

“Against this background, we call on all the EU Institutions and on Member States to extend the European Year of Rail until December 2022 in order to make the best out of this important opportunity and give this valuable initiative the best chances of success,” the letter closes.

A European year of aviation?

But rail associations aren’t the only group vying for a “European Year of” designation next year. In March, 96 lawmakers 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”.

Their letter similarly highlights the severe impact the pandemic has had on the aviation sector, stating that an increase in air travel will “stimulate economic growth and employment”.

“Economic and social life cannot survive without aviation. There is the need to present to the people the importance of aviation and the sector action to adapt to the future requirements and challenges,” said MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu, chair of the intergroup and a member of the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP).

Marinescu confirmed to EURACTIV that the rail sector’s bid for extension has not changed his position in wishing to see 2022 declared the European Year of Aviation.

German MEP Monika Hohlmeier is also supportive of putting aviation in the spotlight in 2022.

“Flying is an integral part of our modern life. By declaring 2022 the year of aviation, we create an opportunity to bring together the needs of the aviation sector, questions of sustainability and climate protection, and people’s desire to travel again,” she said.

MEP Barbara Thaler, the EPP shadow on the European Year of Rail and a member of the Sky & Space intergoup, told EURACTIV that designating 2021 as the year of rail was meant to draw attention to upcoming legislation and challenges in the rail sector.

“Since the legislation is coming forward this year, I don’t see the need to focus on PR activities in 2022,” she said.

“If we manage to make rail competitive, if we manage to successfully roll out the European Railway Traffic Management System and if the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) corridors are finished by 2030, then we should celebrate another year of rail. But before that we need to get things done,” she added.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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