TTHE CENTRAL ROOM of this year’s European Year of Rail was the “Connecting Europe Express”. Between September and October his cars beat EU officials across the continent on an alert tour to promote the future of railways. But the train itself was a nostalgic journey: Most of its wagons were built in the 1980s, as newer models were less likely to be certified by the rail safety boards of the 26 countries it visited. . Straightforward by the European Commission, said Alberto Mazzola of the CER, a railway group, the trip would have been impossible.
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It was a classic European story. The EU has big ambitions for trains as a way to reduce carbon emissions, and its national rail networks are strong. But rail is the mode of transport that requires the most coordination, and on a continent divided into dozens of countries, this is a problem. Governments invest money in national high-speed lines, but often only leave a winding stretch of track connecting neighbors. For national companies that dominate the sector, such as the German and French Deutsche Bahn SNCF, cross-border travel is an ancillary activity and competitors a nuisance. “The single European rail space exists in terms of market opening,” explains Kristian Schmidt, director of land transport at the European Commission. “But we have a long way to go.”
The EUThe mobility strategy has called for making all scheduled trips of 500 km (310 microns) or less carbon neutral by 2030. The most obvious way to do this is to use electric passenger trains. . Even taking into account the use of fossil fuels in the production of electricity, trains produce on average around one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions per passenger-kilometer of planes and less than half of those of buses, according to the European Environment Agency.
Give me a ticket for a plane
Yet only 8% of the distance traveled by land in the EU is by train. Even in the countries most satisfied with trains, Austria and the Netherlands, the figures are 13% and 11%. In these countries, more than 75% of land trips are made by car. Statistics on cross-border rail are fragmentary, but EU figures show that people made only 6.5 million international train trips from Germany in 2019. They made 110 million by plane, only to other countries in the EU. The transfer of a large part to rail will require huge investments.
Faster trains would help. The EU wants to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030. Because they carry passengers to city centers rather than airports, trains can outperform flights on journeys of up to 800 km, provided that ‘they drive at 200 km / h or more. Flights between Milan and Rome fell by more than half after the opening of a high-speed rail line in 2007. Eurostar carried nearly 80% of traffic from London to Brussels and Paris in 2019, and a large part of those who travel between Paris and Frankfurt go on French TGV or german ICE the trains.
But these high-speed international routes are few in number. Spain and France each have extensive high-speed networks, but to get from one to the other trains have to use old-fashioned tracks. France and Italy have barely begun to dig under the Alps to link their networks. High-speed connections between Berlin and central European cities such as Prague and Vienna are still in the planning stage.
These tracks are part of a network of high priority transport corridors called TEN–T first sketched by the EU in the 1990s. But national governments, which bear most of the costs, have been slow to disburse the money. The EUthe own mechanism for interconnection in Europe and other programs foresee a budget of 86 billion euros (100 billion dollars) for the rail from 2021 to 27. But the high speed track can cost more than 40 million d ‘euros per kilometer. On most roads, countries would do better to improve their conventional networks, according to the European Court of Auditors.
A cheaper approach is to bring back the original long-haul rail technology: the night train. Sleeping cars disappeared in Europe in the mid-2010s, but were relaunched between Brussels and Vienna in 2016 by öBB, the Austrian national carrier. They became a romantic fad, being reborn in France, Germany and Sweden. But their load capacity is low.
Cradle of a nation
National divisions have always been a problem for the railways. Sleeper trains were brought to Europe by Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banking heir who fell in love with the Pullman car during a trip to America in the 1860s. It took years of negotiations with various governments to create the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lit, which operated sleeping cars that alternated between locomotives of national operators when crossing borders.
In some ways, European cross-border rail has gone backwards. The journey from Brussels to Luxembourg can take an hour longer than in 1980. Along the German-Czech border, some timetables are not much better than those of Hendschel’s telegraph from 1914. When the German Minister of Transport announced “Trans Europ Express 2.0” last year, this raised the question of why the original Trans Europ Express trains immortalized by Kraftwerk in 1977 were abandoned in the early years. 1990.
One difficulty in reviving them is compatibility. European electric railways use four different voltage levels. Signaling and security systems are even worse: almost every country initially had its own. The European Railway Agency is gradually applying common specifications, but this effort has been underway since 1996. On the borders of Europe, even the width of the track varies: the Baltic countries use the widest gauge of the Russian Empire, and Spain and Portugal have one of their own.
Private railway contractors say traffic would increase if countries actually met their obligations to allow competition. Under EU By law, all Member States have unbundled their rail infrastructure from their rail operators and must allow external players to run on their tracks. But some countries are in practice more open than others. The German owner of the track is a branch of Deutsche Bahn and charges a high service charge, which tends to deter competitors. Sweden only charges for the extra maintenance that new users need, which helps competition from new entrants such as FlixTrain and MTR which brought down the prices.
Then there is the ticket office. Because the systems are incompatible, only a few agencies sell train tickets across the continent. When it comes to refunds, operators are only responsible for the part of the journey on their own trains. High-speed train tickets are usually much more expensive than a cheap plane ticket on the same route. This is unlikely to change as long as jet fuel and most airline emissions are tax exempt.
If Europe wants passengers to switch to rail, it will need to properly tax airline carbon emissions. Until then, many passengers will think of trains with nostalgia. At a Connecting Europe Express event in Berlin, Christopher Irwin of the European Rail Passengers ‘Union said he first traveled to the city by train from Britain in the 1960s. “C’ was easier back then. ” ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Express disoriented”