Train travel in Europe isn’t as popular as it should be, here’s why

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

Any customer who has purchased a cross-border train ticket knows the dilemma: is it worth the high price and the long journey? Especially when air travel seems so much faster and cheaper.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that only 7% of the distance traveled by land in the EU is by rail. What is surprising is that the public perception is wrong: train tickets are not more expensive than plane tickets.

In fact, “one can save an average of 37% by taking the train instead of the plane”, indicates a recent study by the International Union of Railways.

So why aren’t they the trains more popular in Europe?

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

1. A fragmented network hampered by national interests

Rather than a well-oiled grid, the European Union rail network is an “inefficient patchwork of national lines”, explains Josef Doppelbauer, executive director of the European Railway Agency (ERA).

The national structure means that national railway companies are more interested in domestic markets than international connections.

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

“It would encourage companies to seal their deals against each other instead of cooperating, when there is “huge potential”.

The EU has attempted to break up national monopolies and foster market competition by implementing so-called “wheel and track” separation.

This means separating rail infrastructure from rail operators. And while this method has assuaged competition concerns, it also has its drawbacks: “The downside of this separation is that we lost efficiency and increased transaction costs,” explains Alberto Mazzola, director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER). .

A consequence, he says, which is particularly visible along the busiest railway lines: “The greater the traffic, the more difficult it is to manage if there is no integrated infrastructure”.

2. A historic lack of cross-border coordination

In 2018, the European Court of Auditors highlighted the problem of opaque track access charges, which are set by infrastructure managers and differ from one Member State to another.

According to Doppelbauer, this is only one of the many consequences of a lack of technical standardization. National companies are known to order trains that are only compatible with their national rail networks. This often forces cross-border trains to change locomotives when traveling to another country, increasing journey times for customers.

Another example is the absence of a uniform control and signaling system (ERTMS). The ERA reports having reduced 14,000 national rules to less than 100 since 2016, but recently efforts have stalled. Finding common ground and unifying the remaining national laws is more difficult, says Doppelbauer.

The lack of unification goes beyond the physical world and reaches into the digital realms of ticket sites as well. Although some private websites already facilitate the sale of cross-border train tickets, the process usually requires customers to browse through different national railway websites.

Even after purchase, passengers traveling on different national companies are not assured of their connection if the first train from another railway company is late.

When it comes to improving service, “customer rights are most important,” says Lorelei Limousine, European climate and transport campaign manager at Greenpeace.

3. Inefficient and “unfair” investments

Despite decades of underinvestment, in the past two years the European rail system has seen political change, accompanied by an increase in funding for rail infrastructure. “For the first time since World War II, countries like Germany are investing more in rail than in road,” says Mazzola.

The EU investments have, however, drawn some criticism from the European Court of Auditors.

High-speed rail links are a good example of the complexity of European investments.

The CER has bet on the creation of high-speed connections between all major European cities. They expect that reduction in travel times will motivate more people to travel by train.

Yet, as EU auditors pointed out in their 2018 special report, “profitability is at stake, as high-speed lines are not needed everywhere”.

Alternative options, such as improving already existing lines, “[are] not often considered. And despite a resumption of funding, the future challenge is to find “sustained investment”, says Mazzola.

Railway companies also face heavy taxation, with VAT still being paid on many cross-border train tickets. This is particularly “unfair”, says Doppelbauer, because other transport sectors, notably the aviation industry, benefit from an exemption from this tax and other European taxes such as the kerosene tax.

Railway activists and representatives are now waiting for further tax reform. Drafted in 2021, the proposed reform would set a minimum EU-wide tax rate for polluting aviation fuel.

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

A vote on the reform is scheduled for June 2022.

Are we finally changing course?

At the end of 2021, and in an effort to reduce carbon emissions, the European Commission presented an action plan to boost passenger rail journeys and proposed changes to the trans-European transport network (TEN-T) to reduce travel time. route.

“The action plan”, says Limousine, “looks promising but we have to wait to see the concrete legislative proposals to see if there is any real change”.

As part of this action plan, the European Union is working on a platform that would compile timetables, fares and the purchase of tickets for travel across Europe.

The citizen interest is there. The majority of the European population would be in favor of a ban on short-haul flights at EU level and take the train insteadas claimed by many environmental groups.

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

National rail companies have been contacted for comment but have not responded.

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