Why are train journeys unpopular in Europe?

Buying a train ticket to cross Europe can be an expensive nightmare.

All customers who have purchased a cross-border train ticket know this dilemma: is the high price and the long journey worth it? Especially when the plane works so much faster and cheaper.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the train accounts for only 7% of the distance traveled on land in the EU. The surprising thing, however, is that the public perception is wrong: Train tickets are no more expensive than airline tickets.

Actually, “you can save an average of 37% by taking the train instead of the plane“, according to a recent study by the International Union of Railways.

So why train is it not more popular in Europe?

Although the situation is complex, it can be boiled down to three main factors.

A fragmented network, hampered by national interests

Instead of being one network well oiled, European railway network is a “inefficient mosaic of national lines“, explains Josef Doppelbauer, CEO of the European Railway Agency (ERA).

This nation-based structure means that national railway companies are more interested in domestic markets than international connections.

Let’s say that here in France, at SNCF, when you say you want to invest more in cross-border, the usual answer is that 95% of traffic is national“, explains Mr Doppelbauer.

This encourages companies to close their markets to each other instead of collaborating when there isenormous potential“.

The EU has sought to break national monopolies and promote market competition by implementing a so-called “separationwheels and tracks“.

This means separating railway infrastructure from train operators. Although this method has helped to curb competition problems, it also has disadvantages: “The downside of this separation is that we lost efficiency and increased transaction costs“, explains Alberto Mazzola, Director of the European Community of Railways and Infrastructure Companies (CER).

One consequence, he says, is particularly noticeable along the busiest railway lines: “The higher the traffic, the harder it is to manage if there is no integrated infrastructure. “

2. A historical lack of cross-border coordination

In 2018, the European Court of Auditors pointed to the problem of the opacity of track access charges, which are set by infrastructure managers and vary from Member State to Member State.

According to Doppelbauer, this is only one of the many consequences of the lack of technical standardization. National companies are known for ordering trains that are only compatible with their national rail network. This often forces cross-border trains to change locomotives when entering another country, increasing the travel time for customers.

Another example is the absence of a uniform control and signaling system (ERTMS). The ERA says it has reduced 14,000 national rules to less than 100 since 2016, but efforts have recently stalled. It is harder to find common ground and reconcile the remaining national laws, according to Mrs Doppelbauer.

The lack of unification goes beyond the physical world and also reaches into the digital worlds of ticket sites. Although some private websites already facilitate the sale of cross-border train tickets, customers generally have to browse the various national railway websites.

Even after the purchase, passengers traveling with different national companies are not secured their connection if the first train from another railway company is delayed.

When it comes to improving service, “customer rights are most important“Says Lorelei Limousine, Head of the European Climate and Transport Campaign at Greenpeace.

3. Inefficient and “unfair” investments

Despite decades of underinvestment, the European railway system has undergone political change over the last two years, accompanied by increased funding for railway infrastructure. “For the first time since World War II, countries like Germany are investing more in railways than in roads“, Says Mr. Mazzola.

However, EU investment has received some criticism from the European Court of Auditors.

High-speed rail connections are a good example of the complexity of European investment.

CER has put its hope in the creation of high-speed connections between all major European cities. She hopes that the reduction in travel time will make more people travel by train.

But as the EU auditors pointed out in their special report for 2018, “cost-effectiveness is at stake as high-speed lines are not needed everywhere“.

Alternative options, such as improving existing lines, “[ne sont] not often taken properly into account“And despite a resumption of funding, the future challenge remains to be found”a sustainable investment“, according to Mazzola.

Railway companies also have to deal with heavy taxes, where VAT is still paid on many cross-border train tickets. This situation is especiallyunfair“, according to Mr Doppelbauer, because other transport sectors, in particular the aviation industry, benefit from an exemption from this tax and other European taxes such as the tax on petroleum.

Railway activists and representatives are now awaiting further tax reform. Elaborated in 2021, the proposed reform will set an EU-wide minimum tax rate for polluting aviation fuel.

Doppelbauer hopes the new tax revenue can be used to support train travel. Activists share these hopes, but Ms Limousine, a Greenpeace activist, is cautious: “In the past, EU governments have been really reluctant to tackle emissions from the transport sector“, she says.

The vote on the reform is scheduled for June 2022.

Are we finally changing course?

At the end of 2021 and with the aim of limiting carbon emissions, the European Commission presented an action plan to increase passenger train journeys and proposed changes to the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) to reduce travel time.

The action plan“said Limousine,”looks promising, but we have to wait to see concrete bills to see if there is any real change“.

As part of this action plan, the EU is working on a platform to draw up timetables, ticket prices and the purchase of tickets for travel in Europe.

The interest of the citizens is certainly there. The majority of the European population would be in favor of banning short-haul flights at EU level and using the train instead, as many environmental groups demand.

According to an OBC Transeuropa report commissioned by Greenpeace, one third of short-haul flights in the EU have a rail option of less than six hours. Banning them would save 3.5 million tonnes of CO2e a year.

National railway companies were asked for comment but did not respond.

Article translated from English

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