What is Back on Track?
Back on Track is a European initiative for cross-border rail transport, in particular the night train network. We have around 60 active members from more than ten different European countries, including active and former railway and tourism workers, representatives of national passenger associations, scientists and private individuals. What distinguishes us from the national passenger associations is that we take an explicitly pan-European perspective. We regard the European railway system as a coherent network. We are in regular contact with national passenger associations, the railway industry, European and national politicians, environmental associations, trade unions and scientists who study the European transport system.
What have you been able to achieve so far?
At the timetable change in December 2018, new night train connections were introduced for the first time in years, such as Berlin-Vienna and Berlin-Budapest. For the first time in years, there were no cutbacks of important connections in Western and Central Europe. In response to a public petition and political persuasion by us and others, the coalition agreement of the new Swedish government provides for the reintroduction of night train services to other European countries. In France, the government has committed itself to maintaining the remaining night train connections after we and others campaigned for their retention for years. In Spain, the relaunch of the Barcelona-Granada direct link is planned. In Germany, we accompanied the successful partial takeover of DB’s night train network by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), which preserved important connections. Our member Joachim Holstein informed the transport committee of the Bundestag about the situation of night trains in Germany in January 2015 and February 2017.
Are trains really that much better for the climate than planes?
European long-distance trains are almost always more climate-friendly than aircraft, often by an order of magnitude (see figure 1). The difference is most pronounced where trains run on electrified routes and are powered by a low-carbon energy source. On existing infrastructure, taking the train is practically always more climate-friendly than flying.
For new infrastructure, geography and expected utilisation of the new railway line are important factors in determining its environmental benefit (see figure 2).
What rules does the EU enforce when it comes to the railway policies of its member states?
Since 1991 there have been four so-called “railway packages” consisting of regulations and directives which regulate the European railway market. In 2007 the market for freight transport was opened, in 2010 the market for cross-border passenger transport. The fourth railway package provides for the complete opening of the European rail market and was launched in 2016. Important parts will come into force in 2020. In addition to technical harmonisation, it obligates the member states to implement the following requirements:
1. Open network access: Access to the rail network must be open to all rail operators on equal terms, for both freight and passenger transport.
2. Separation of network and operations: The network must be managed separately from railway operations, however, bundling in holding companies (such as the DB or SNCF Groups) remains possible.
3. Public Service Obligations (PSOs) and
tender obligation: If railway connections are subsidised by a member state,
this must (in general) be done within the framework of an open tender.
The share of PSOs and economically independent rail transport differs strongly from member state to member state (see figure 3).
Can member states still operate state railway companies?
Yes, but like private companies they have to participate in public tenders or make a profit. In future, cross-subsidisation of public railway companies will be prohibited. A complete renationalisation of the railway system, such envisioned by the UK Labour Party will be practically impossible.
Does the EU set track access charges?
No. The only requirement is that the
network is open to all providers on equal terms. Network operators can arrange
the fees for network access as they wish. If the railway network is in public
hands, direct subsidisation of the infrastructure is also permitted. There are
neither minimum nor maximum charges. It is also conceivable, for example, that
only a nominal charge is levied for network access. The level of train path
charges already varies greatly from member state to member state (see figure
What’s the state of European railways, in general?
The state of the railways differs greatly from member state to member state – there is no direct connection between privatisation and the state of the rail system as a whole:
• Rail systems in good condition: UK (fully privatised), Austria (privatised to a lesser extent),
Portugal (privatised to a lesser extent), Netherlands (partly privatised), Czech Republic (partly privatised), Sweden (mostly privatised), Finland (privatised to a lesser extent).
• Rail systems in mediocre condition: Germany (partly privatized), Italy (partly privatized), Belgium (privatised to a lesser extent), Poland (partly privatized), Spain (privatised to a lesser extent),
Denmark (partly privatized).
• Rail systems in poor condition: France (privatised to a lesser extent), Greece (fully privatized).
The decisive factor for the state of a member state’s rail system is above all the level of public spending on rail infrastructure (see Figure 5). There is no magic privatisation concept that makes good rail transport cheap.
Incidentally, when compared to emerging and other developed economies, the share of goods transported by rail is particularly low in Europe (see Figure 6). The main cause are the transport policies pursued by the EU and its member states in the past.
Is passenger rail transport declining in the EU?
No, rail passenger transport is growing at about the same rate as the total passenger transport market (see figure 7). This means that the share of rail transport does not increase but also does not decrease.
However, there have been major shifts, generally away from (nighttime) long-distance traffic towards (daytime) medium-distance traffic, especially in favour of air travel. The night train network and conventional intercity network outside high speed lines is shrinking continuously, especially in Southern and Western Europe. This has made air travel the only attractive alternative on many routes (see figure 8).
The railway network is also shrinking in almost all member states, especially in structurally weak rural regions. In France, the Macron government briefly considered the closure of about 30% of the entirenetwork. These plans were quickly softened, yet numerous rural routes are acutely endangered. After the financial crisis, Greece permanently shut down about 50% of its rail lines from 2010 onwards, but continues to upgrade its main axes.
Why do you care about long distance and nighttime connections? Can’t the high-speed rail network replace them?
No. For reasons of cost and comfort, high speed rail is not a serious competitor to air travel for distances grater than about 700 kilometers. The situation is quite different for night trains, which can cover distances such as Stockholm-Narvik (1,400 km), Vienna-Rome (1,100 km), Paris-Venice (1,100 km) or Turin-Palermo (1,500 km) and are very popular on these routes. In combination with daytime long-distance transport, even considerably longer distances can be covered at attractive conditions (see illustrations 9 and 10).
Why is the intercity and night train network shrinking? Is insufficient demand the reason?
No. Many night trains and intercity connections are abandoned despite experiencing high demand. ÖBB’s new night train service in Germany is recording a strong increase in passenger numbers. However, budget airlines generally exert a downward pressure on the price of railway tickets. The basic problem, however, is rather that the separation of network and operation prescribed by the EU has changed the basic cost structure for long-distance train operators. Before the separation of network and operation prescribed by the EU, there was an incentive for railway companies to achieve optimal network utilisation : The railway network causes essentially fixed costs, the variable costs of additional trains on the network are low (approx. 10%).
The economic separation of network and operation required by the EU significantly increases the variable costs of network access from the point of view of train operators. This creates an incentive to run as few trains as possible. Night trains were traditional “gap fillers” which used the network at times of weak demand. Night trains travel slower than day trains but cover larger distances and therefore have a lower energy consumption per kilometre. With the separation of network and operation and the introduction of network access charges, these economic advantages of night trains were lost. The stagnation of rail freight traffic in Europe can also be partly attributed to this effect.
Unfortunately, on occasion it has been observed that conventional long-distance traffic is deliberately undermined by the railway companies in order to increase the ridership of high-speed services.
What do autonomous vehicles mean for the future of European railways?
This cannot yet be judged. Due to increasing urbanisation and changes in the social structure and consumer behaviour it is also possible that in the future considerably fewer Europeans will own cars. It will certainly take a long time before autonomous road vehicles achieve a high market penetration. Much will depend on how they are used by mobility service providers and linked to the rail and public transport networks. The emergence of electric mobility is likely to change rail passenger behaviour particularly on short- and medium-haul routes.
From an environmental and socio-political point of view, it would therefore be desirable if:
• No autonomous vehicles with internal combustion engines were to come on the market and
• Long-distance rail connections, in particular night and direct connections were strengthened.
Is the transport system in Europe functioning according to the principles of a market economy?
No. The European transport system has been shaped by state investment policy for hundreds of years. Many European railway lines and canals were built in the 19th century in cooperation between states and private investors (today this would be called “public-private partnership”). The transfer of traffic from rail to road in the 1950s and 1960s was also the result of deliberate state road construction and subsidy policies. In the 1970s there were plans in West Germany, France and Great Britain to reduce the railway network to a core network, but these policies were abandoned in the wake of the oil crisis. Since then, most EU member states have tried to operate a publicly subsidised railway network at minimal cost. Mobility ensures the social and economic coherence of societies, which is why it is politically promoted and made more affordable. All modes of transport, including air and road transport, are directly or indirectly subsidised in a variety of ways, and no one has to pay the real costs of mobility for society as a whole. A transport sector operated according to strict principles of a market economy is not practicable and also not desirable, especially from environmental and socio-political point of view. Market mechanisms can occasionally be used as steering instruments, but this should not hide the fact that the entire mobility market is massively distorted, which is also what is generally politically desired.
What’s going on with passenger rights?
Passenger rights were excluded from the fourth railway package and are currently the subject of a separate EU legislative procedure. The trilogue negotiations on the basis of the parliamentary decision of 15 November 2018 are currently underway. For the coherence of the European railway network from the passenger perspective with simultaneous liberalisation it is particularly important that, as demanded by Parliament, passenger rights apply to the entire system and also in the case of cross-provider changes. At present, passenger rights do not apply across operators when separate tickets are issued, which is why many railway companies no longer offer Europe-wide ticket sales. A force majeure clause would create perverse incentives for infrastructure maintenance and was also rejected by Parliament, which is to be welcomed.
What can the EU do better?
Even after the European elections the EU Commission in its new composition will certainly not move away from the policy of liberalising the railway market, including the separation of network and operation. It remains to be seen to what extent the promised increases in efficiency in the railway sector will actually be achieved by this policy. At the political level, it is particularly important to draw the attention of EU institutions to the unintended negative side effects of the liberalisation policy on conventional long-distance traffic and to persuade them to take appropriate countermeasures. In particular, the EU could:
• Aim to reduce investment risks and costs for new night train operators by acquiring its own fleet of sleeper and couchette coaches (either new or second-hand) and leasing them to new market entrants. An EU second-hand rail vehicle fleet for daytime passenger and freight transport is also conceivable and could lead to better market dynamics.
• Tender night train connections between major European cities itself, possibly in cooperation with member states, cities and regions.
• Implement passenger rights rules in such a way that the European rail system remains a network that is useful beyond individual point-to-point connections offered by a particular operator.
• Pass on the evironmental and social costs of aviation to airlines and combat social dumping and low price policies in the aviation industry.
• Reduce direct and indirect subsidies to air and private motorized transport whereever possible.
In this context it is particularly important to strengthen the territorial and social cohesion of Europe; high-quality, climate-friendly mobility must be available to all Europeans. To achieve climate protection in the transport sector purely through market mechanisms is difficult to reconcile with this goal. Therefore, the EU must, in coordination with the member states, intervene more actively in the transport market. Offers that have the character of a partial decommodification of the transport system, such as Interrail, are very helpful in this context and should be strengthened. It would be conceivable, for example, to introduce a European long-distance social ticket with annual free kilometres to strengthen internal tourism and support internal migrant workers. Currently no political entity feels responsible for the functioning of the trans-European long-distance and night train network. This must change.
In order to effectively promote European
rail transport, the EU would have to step out of the role of a pure market
regulation authority and actively shape the transport system not only at the
infrastructure level but also at the service level. It remains to be seen
whether a sustainable consensus to this effect can be reached among the member
states and political party families. In some cases, however, this role can also
be fulfilled by the member states, regions and cities, especially in order to
create and promote pilot projects.