Since the first presentation in September 2020, there is a lot of talk about the “TEE 2.0” – a promised remake of the legendary “Trans Europ Express” train network. German transport minister Andreas Scheuer is trying to attach his name to the idea of a new European network of fast trains. But what can we really expect? The plan sounds great on the first glimpse: 31 new international high speed train lines connecting pretty much all European metropolises from Malaga to Stockholm, complemented with 12 new night train lines fulfilling the same purpose for overnight travel.
And the trains are supposed to be perfectly integrated into the national timetables, building the backbone of a European synchronized timetable (“Europatakt”). That would indeed be a big step forward for European rail travel, which is right now just a shadow of what it used to be some decades ago – making flying across Europe the preferred way of travelling for most people nowadays. And it is long overdue that something is done about this situation in times of climate crisis and flight shame. The proposed network would be a good starting point for a new European rail network, which should on the long run be complemented with many more day and night trains in order to really interconnect Europe.
But as good as the concept looks like, the realization is still written in the stars. All that happened so far is the signing of a “letter of intent” by several countries. That is a first step, but it remains unclear, which trains are going to serve the proposed lines (most likely they have to be built first), who is going to run them and how they are going to be financed. Even worse, German railways (Deutsche Bahn), located in the middle of the continent and directly subordinated to minister Scheuer, is not planning to invest into new international trains, especially into night trains, themselves. Instead, they gave up their night train network less than five years ago in spite of huge protests by Back on Track and others, tearing a huge hole into the European network. That means that others – like Austrian railways (ÖBB) will have to run the trains even completely outside of their own country. They are planning to run at least some of the new night trains routes anyway – without the new TEE concept. Actually, “new” is not even the right term here, because routes like Paris – Berlin, Paris – Munich, Amsterdam – Zürich or Brussels – Warsaw were abandoned just a few years ago, often in spite of good booking numbers. In the same way, many of the proposed new day trains are reissues of the “TEE 1.0” trains, that connected Europe in the 1970s.
All that does not make any of the proposed trains wrong, but it sheds another light onto the supposedly revolutionary idea of the “TEE 2.0” network. And it seems that the focus of the proposed network is purely on the prestigious high-speed trains between the capitals while cold-shouldering direct connections between regions and smaller cities, which might be at least as important in order to build up a new European rail network that can serve as an attractive alternative to flying for most Europeans.
The European Union (EU) might be key for a real renaissance of European rail. First of all, they should set up a rolling stock company to provide the required trains – and to make sure that there is a fleet of high-quality trains fulfilling the requirements of long-distance travel. Secondly, the EU should be the platform to further develop a “TEE 2.0” network that really interconnects the whole continent. And the EU could even serve as the body to have the trains operated by the rail companies under public service obligations (PSO) – because many of those trains might not be cash cows at least at the beginning. And the EU should also set the base for a European ticketing system that would make it possible to buy one ticket to go from any place on the continent to any other – for a reasonable price and with full passenger rights in case something goes wrong. That would mean that the EU has to become a lot more active for a rail network than nowadays. But the last decades have clearly shown that it is not enough to set some technical standards, talk of a unified rail market and call a “European year of rail” in order to bring new trains onto the tracks. And what could be a better symbol for climate-friendly European unification than such a train network?
It is great that something is starting to move towards a better European rail network lately and that ideas for “TEE 2.0” and other international trains are discussed more widely. But it seems that there is still quite some work to do for Back on Track and other lobby groups in order to put it into practice.