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The following article by Bernhard Knierim appeared in the German weekly “Der Freitag” issue 31/2020. It has been translated by Trevor Garrod.

Future mobility based on Europe-wide rail network with emphasis on night trains.

A super-train at 350km per hour from Lisbon to Helsinki – a new project as a cure for the climate, as Michael Jaeger recently demanded (DF 28/2020). This is an appropriate critical look at such a promise.

Firstly, the building of high speed lines itself requires an immense amount of energy and concrete, which means a gigantic advance of CO2 and in addition is very destructive for the natural world, even if far less then new motorways. Even if such a European silk road tempted large numbers of people from plane to train, it would take many years to compensate for this damage and the maintenance of such a route would remain costly. The realisation of this megaproject would also take many years, probably decades. Rail Baltica, the section of the proposed line from Warsaw to Helsinki, has been planned since 1994, but its realisation up to now is in the stars. As good as nothing has been constructed – after 26 years. We no longer have such an amount of time, in view of the acute climate crisis.

However, travel at 350kph is anything but climate-friendly. It is known that the energy consumption increases exponentially with the speed – but usage in no way increases likewise. The highest speeds only cut journey times by minutes. Greater gains of time can only be realised when the trains travel for long distances non-stop.

That has a further consequence. in that many people along the route outside the capital cities are disconnected.  Rail as a mere point-to-point link between metropolitan areas, like the aircraft, is a false comparison.  It is only really useful as a network of well tuned across the whole country, as indeed is proposed by the “Deutschlandtakt” (even interval service for all of Germany).

For that there is hardly any sense  in speeds of over 250kph in densely populated central Europe. Instead, the right approach is to optimise the network in a way that Swiss transport planners have honed to perfection. Often a convenient journey with good connections is more valuable than top speeds on specific sections of track. Furthermore, sharing a super high speed line with freight traffic is barely credible; the speeds and demands on the track differ too much. Each new high speed line in Germany is made to look worth the money by the claim that it can be used by freight trains. But the 10 billion euro new line from Halle and Leipzig via Erfurt to Nuremberg is not the only such route on which, up to now, no freight train has travelled.

This is in no way special pleading against new or improved rail links. In many places in Europe, especially across national borders, they are urgently needed. Targeted filling of gaps or increased line speeds in the right places can do a lot to optimise the existing rail network and make connections more attractive. But a completely new line which is not integrated  in the existing network has limited usefulness. For fare too long, especially in Germany, new high speed lines have been planned without integration in the existing overall network and a slow rethink is only just beginning. We should not repeat this mistake at European level.

Instead, and especially for long stretches of route, going back to tried and tested technology is helpful. With night trains it is also possible, without costly new lines, to cover distances of over 1000km over night, and indeed on the existing network which fortunately in Europe is still very dense. Where fast lines already exist,  significantly longer distances can also be covered. In this way the time taken for the passenger,  even without high speed, is much less than in daytime trains, because one is on the move comfortably asleep. Even at 350 kph. a journey right across Europe in future would not take much longer than most people would like to spend  sitting in a train.

Instead, what is more pleasant than, after having had a good night’s sleep and breakfast, arriving in a new city. in this respect rail even has an advantage over air, when one has to get up in the middle of the night  to start a journey.

Slowing down is enriching
Unfortunately, many European railways, with Deutsche Bahn AG at their head,  have withdrawn from the night train market in recent years because they could not compete with subsidised low-cost airlines and because for many the sleeping car had an old-fashioned image – unjustly so.

Nevertheless, there is at present a small renaissance and some new links. With appropriate support, a new night train network could be built up within a few years, and  all of Europe, not just for a few metropolitan areas, could be connected up in a convenient and climate-friendly manner. In the “Lunaliner” project, activists already four years ago drafted a plan for a night train network across Europe, with many direct links
there are also ideas for new trains which are suitable for changed journey habits and can make overnight travel even more convenient; in this field  the Austrian Federal Railways are way out ahead as the largest night train operator in Europe. Even today rail is ahead of the low-cost airlines in terms of convenience – from the queues and security checks at airports to the aircraft in which, despite the danger of corona infections,  travellers are densely packed together.  A somewhat slower pace could only be an enrichment in this respect.

Those of us who want to gain more people to use rail need not only new routes but also political action. The construction of new lines does not in itself create a network of useable train links. Booking of international train tickets nowadays is most time-consuming and, in comparison to air, often expensive. Alongside rail improvements, dismantling the privileges of the airline industry is also necessary.

United Railways of Europe
First of all, the massive tax advantages .for air travel must be abolished. Why is air travel exempt from kerosene tax, only paying a small proportion of the CO2 certification and not even liable  to Value Added Tax on cropss-border flights? Furthermore, why are working conditions accepted which often amount to exploitation?

As a good alternative we need, in the final analysis, a return to a real Europe-wide network of convenient and fast  international daytime and night trains, integrated with ferries where there is no overland connection.  The aim everywhere must be an attractive  climate-friendly alternative to plying. To this end, the EU should give financial support to the development of new links and investment in new rolling stock and at the same time promote co-operation between railways in cross-border travel.

Would not the “United Railways of Europe”, with the promise of Europe-wide mobility by rail, be a terrific aim?  It needs to be coupled with  a Europe-wide unified booking system so that the purchase of rail tickets in future can be at least as simple as it is today on the airlines. Flight-shame is gradually spreading from Sweden to the rest of Europe. What is lacking is rail pride. A lot remains to be done in this respect, and the money and energy  would be better spent towards this goal than  for a new megaproject.

Bernhard Knierim

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