Buying a train ticket to cross Europe can be a costly nightmare.
Every customer who has bought a ticket for a cross-border train knows the dilemma: is it worth the high price and the long journey? Especially when air travel seems to be much faster and cheaper.
Given this, it is not surprising that only 7 percent of the distance traveled by land in the EU is by rail. Surprisingly, however, public perception is wrong: train tickets are not really more expensive than air tickets.
A recent study by the International Union of Railways states that “a person can save an average of 37 percent by train instead of by plane.
So why not trains more popular in Europe?
Although the situation is complex, it can be reduced to three main factors.
1. Fragmented network hampered by national interests
Rather than a well-oiled European grille railway network is an “inefficient mosaic of national lines”, says 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 in international connections.
“Let’s say that here in France with SNCF, when you say you want to invest more in cross-border transport, the usual answer is that 95 percent of our transport is domestic,” says Doppelbauer.
“This would encourage companies to close their markets to each other instead of cooperating, even though there is ‘huge potential.’
The EU has tried to break through national monopolies and promote competition in the market by setting up a so-called “wheel-rail” department.
This means separating the railway infrastructure from the train operators. And while this method has allayed competition concerns, it also has its drawbacks: “The disadvantage of this department is that we have lost efficiency and increased transaction costs,” says Alberto Mazzola, Director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER). .
The consequence, he says, is especially visible on busier railways: “The higher the traffic, the harder it is to manage if there are no integrated infrastructures.”
2. Historical lack of cross-border coordination
In 2018, the European Court of Auditors pointed to the problem of opaque track access charges set by infrastructure managers, which vary from one Member State to another.
According to Doppelbauer, this is just one of many consequences of insufficient technical standardization. It is known that national companies order trains that are only compatible with their national rail networks. This often forces cross-border trains to switch locomotives when traveling to another country, thus prolonging the journey time for customers.
Another example is the absence of a unified control and signaling system (ERTMS). ERA says it has reduced 14,000 national rules to less than 100 since 2016, but efforts have recently stalled. It is more difficult to find common ground and unify the remaining national laws, says Doppelbauer.
The lack of unification extends beyond the physical world and extends to the digital areas of ticketing sites. Although some privately owned websites already facilitate the sale of cross-border train tickets, this process usually requires customers to go through different national railway websites.
Passengers of different national companies do not have a guaranteed connection even after purchase if the first train of another railway company is delayed.
When it comes to improving services, “consumer rights are paramount”, says Lorelei Limousine, EU climate and transport activist at Greenpeace.
3. Inefficient and “unfair” investments
Despite decades of underinvestment, the European railway system has seen a political shift over the last two years, accompanied by increased funding for rail infrastructure. “For the first time since World War II, countries like Germany are investing more in railways than in road transport,” says Mazzola.
However, EU investment has provoked some criticism from the European Court of Auditors.
High-speed train connections are a good example of the complexity of European investment.
CER has placed its hopes on creating a high-speed connection between all major European cities. They expect it shortened journey times will motivate more people to travel by train.
However, as EU auditors emphasized in their special report of 2018, “cost-effectiveness is at stake because high-speed lines are not needed everywhere”.
Alternative options, such as improving existing lines, “[are] not often given due attention. ”And despite the increase in funding, the future challenge is to find a“ lasting investment, ”says Mazzola.
Railway companies also face high taxation, with VAT still being paid on many cross-border train tickets. This is particularly “unfair,” Doppelbauer said, as other transport sectors, especially the aviation industry, benefit from exemptions from this and other EU taxes, such as the kerosene tax.
A new tax reform is now awaiting activists and railway representatives. The proposed reform, which was proposed in 2021, would set an EU-wide minimum tax rate on polluting aviation fuels.
Doppelbauer hopes that the new tax revenue could be used to subsidize rail travel. Activists share these hopes, but Greenpeace activist Limousine is cautious: “In the past, EU governments have been really reluctant to address emissions from the transport sector,” she said.
The vote on the reform is scheduled for June 2022.
Are we finally changing tracks?
At the end of 2021, in an effort to reduce carbon emissions, the European Commission presented an action plan to promote passenger transport by rail and proposed changes to the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) to reduce travel time.
“The action plan,” says Limousine, “looks promising, but we have to wait for concrete legislative proposals to see if there is a real change.”
As part of this action plan, the European Union is working on a platform to draw up timetables, fares and the purchase of tickets for trips around Europe.
Citizens are certainly interested here. The majority of the European population would be in favor of banning short – haul flights at EU level and go by train insteadas required by many environmental groups.
According to the OBC Transeuropa report commissioned by Greenpeace, one third of short-haul flights in the EU have train alternatives within six hours. Their ban alone would save 3.5 million tonnes of CO2e per year.
The national railway companies were contacted with a request for an opinion, but did not respond.