More emphasis on trains in Europe to replace flights

The Green Deal for Europe should, among other elements, reduce aviation (which is harmful to the climate) and promote alternatives. The activist network Back-on-Track has pointed out five areas of priority, where improvements are needed to get cross-border long-distance trains in shape to provide alternatives to flights. International night trains are identified as a “low-hanging fruit” which can turn the tide in favor of climate friendly transportation.

Suggestions regarding all five points are directed toward both national, bilateral and EU bodies and initiatives. The time to act is now, and the Green Deal can incorporate all five points very well.

Consultations in Brussels 28.1. 2020 were organized by Back-on-Track involving the European Parliament (in particular the TRAN Committee) and the Commission (DG Move). The cross-country delegation from Back-on-Track met a growing will from Brussels to promote trains and night trains. However, efforts are as of yet insufficiently coordinated.

From good will to coordinated action

Back-on-Track asked politicians and civil servants to establish leadership to promote cross-border trains. European travelers are more ready to see trains as a real alternative to planes than Brussels is. The political level in the EU must take overall responsibility to secure progress in this area. A “blame game” must be avoided, as must the idea that “someone else will take the ball and run with it”.

It’s imperative that cross-border rail play a more than just marginal role in the market. It has the potential to take on sizable market shares and lead to the necessary reduction in air travel. However, Brussels doesn’t seem to see railways as anything more than a niche compared with a blooming aviation industry. But a level playing field could be a game changer: If external costs of flying were internalized, the rail industry could show its full potential. Ongoing infrastructure investments will pay off, and more investments will be justified.

PSO schemes are justified

A strong case in point: A night train from Berlin to Brussels is very much needed! Very little is required to get started! To start new operations will probably need some public funding, and could be achieved with public service obligations (PSOs) from those regions and countries who stand to benefit from the new service. In general, there is strong demand for reliable and frequent services between large cities. Focus should also turn to east-west connections, also to better connect Eastern Europe with the west of the continent.

Today, flights are subsidised directly and indirectly, a practice that hinders the establishment of new competing international night train lines. Especially when considering the urgent need to solve the climate crisis, public financial support and PSOs for new night train lines are definitely justified.

Institutions are already in place

Both Eurofima and the European Investment Bank can support important investments in rolling stock for new night trains. Without such a boost the market will only grow slowly, and new entrants will have difficulty finding rolling stock. New market entrants and public actors need to be well-coordinated and work together, we need new equipment fast.

Many years of neglect must be reversed

From the Back-on-Track consultations in Brussels it is clear that the rail sector has to be more consumer-oriented. If the incumbent rail operators do not establish easy-to-use long-distance train ticketing (unfortunately, we currently see the opposite trend with worsening international connectivity), the EU must legislate in favor of travelers. We need innovation in this area!

Why is it that VAT applies to long distance trains? Why are infrastructure fees for night trains still higher than the marginal costs of using railway lines? Why are regional trains given priority to night trains to access station platforms in the morning rush hours? Many systemic barriers for night trains still need lifting.

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