Rail is the perfect answer to respond to the challenge of greening passenger and freight transport, said Felipe González, chairman of the reflection group on the future of Europe beyond 2020.
"We cannot avoid going back to the concept of railways. In the past, railways were a response to industrialisation and changing times, and will be so again in the future. I don't want to shock anyone, but the comparison can be used," said González as he collected a European Railway Award this week for his contribution to modernising the Spanish transport system.
He said that compared to other alternatives, rail transport – both passenger and freight – is particularly suited to "Europe's dimensions and demographic density".
"If I had had the time, I would have tabled a proposal for Spain to continue to progressively substitute road with rail in the transport of goods," he continued.
Felipe González, a former Spanish prime minister, decided in the 1980s to boost the Spanish economy by making large-scale investments in high-speed rail infrastructure. His 'Plan Felipe' also initiated suburban traffic reform, making trains more prominent in Spanish cities.
Since December 2008, González has been chairing monthly meetings of a reflection group on the future of Europe. The group is currently drafting its final report, which is set to be presented to EU leaders at their June summit.
While the group is reflecting on longer term challenges (2020-2030), its report is expected to influence the EU's new '2020' strategy, due to replace the Lisbon Agenda for Growth and Jobs.
Role of transport in 2020 strategy
The transport sector as a whole has called for a stronger and more comprehensive commitment to transport policy by the new European Commission.
In a joint letter to Commission President José Manuel Barroso late last year, nine transport organisations representing the European rail, road, air, inland waterway and maritime sectors expressed concern over the EU executive's drive to merely "decarbonise the transport sector". Greening transport is the only reference to the sector in the July 2009 political guidelines for the Barroso II Commission.
The group called on the new Commission to recognise the role of transport as "the backbone" of the European economy and address a range of upcoming challenges related to ageing urban populations, co-modality and new technologies.
Kallas: 'Fewer projects, more money'
Siim Kallas, the EU's commissioner-designate for transport, said in a European Parliament hearing on 14 January that he wanted EU money to be spent on large transport infrastructure projects rather than small ones (EURACTIV 15/01/10).
A review of the EU's transport infrastructure is expected this year, including a revision of 30 priority projects defined in 2004, which mainly concern the rail sector.