During the successive waves of Covid, there were many voices calling for us to change our habits to make the post-Covid world a greener and more respectful world for people and the environment. While we are barely emerging from the worst of the pandemic, Belgians, like other Europeans, are planning their summer trips and it is already certain that most will leave by car or plane. However, these two means of transport have a huge impact on the environment.
The train, however put forward as a solution to the better post-Covid world, will only have a minimal share of this market. The train is still not, or no longer, suitable for destinations beyond 500 kilometres: it is often expensive, there are no direct connections from Belgium, connections with connections are difficult to find and it is even more difficult to book a ticket. Without mentioning the complexity of traveling there with your bike, your dog, bulky luggage in different trains of different rail operators who each have their own rules and conditions. Even regulars like us no longer find their way through the maze of different fares and conditions for exchange or return in the event of a train being delayed or cancelled.
Ecological, social and comfort benefits
However, it has already been several years since we were told of the rebirth of the train over long distances, and especially the night train. This is ecological (some studies speak of twenty times more greenhouse gas emissions for an airplane than for a train, counted in person-kilometres) and unlike the TGV, it requires almost no investment in infrastructure. It can be fast, comfortable and it evokes memories of youth for many Belgians.
The policies of the various levels of power recognize these undeniable advantages of the train, at least in discourse. Everywhere in Europe, rail is a major issue for national policy. Some countries have opened up their network to competition, others have preferred to keep it entirely under public control. But everywhere, in every European country, the public sector plays an important role in railway management. At the Belgian national level, the number of travelers reached 253 million national travelers in 2019, almost double compared to 1997. In the other European countries, we see the same upward trend.
65% fewer night trains
At European level, for thirty years, the agenda has been liberalization. International passenger traffic has been fully liberalized since 2010 and preparations for liberalization even began long before. It is up to operators, whether public or private, to take the initiative to run an international train without the intervention of national states and the EU. Operators therefore generally do not receive a subsidy for the international part of the journey. The sole motivation for running an international train is to make a profit. But this is complicated for an international passenger train. This difficulty is reflected in the figures. Contrary to the upward trend in domestic travel, the number of international travelers remains about the same and the number of night trains has fallen by 65% and their mileage even more (according to a study commissioned by the European Commission carried out by Steer Group and KCW).
For us, this study is proof that the current European policy is a failure. After twelve years, it may be time to draw conclusions and change policy.
Another long-term policy is needed
Leaving all initiative to market logic does not work. When we look around the world at which countries have the best train networks, we see that these are all countries that are involved in the rail sector and that have a long-term policy. On this subject, we have just learned that the new SNCB management contract will include the ideas of our colleagues from Integrato, an ASBL which brings together real rail professionals. Their goal is nothing other than to organize the Belgian railways differently. In summary, we start with a very long-term scientific planning of timetables – we are talking about 2035-2040 – focused on important nodes where trains meet up with trams and buses, and then we adapt infrastructure improvements. on the basis of this theoretical timetable. This is how Austria and Switzerland operate, which have the best networks in Europe and probably in the world. This policy cannot differ more from the policy of any market conducted by the EU.
The European Commission denies or ignores
Until very recently, the EU even denied the problem. Now it mainly hides behind technical problems, such as signaling systems which differ from one country to another and completely “ignores” that international freight trains do not have any problems: they run from Antwerp to Italy, through five countries, without incident. Direct night trains from Brussels and with destinations such as Copenhagen, Warsaw, Ljubljana, Venice or Rome existed until the early 2000s. But despite their success, as elsewhere in Europe, they disappeared and cars were scrapped. At the time, signaling differences were no problem.
The European Year of Rail, which has just ended, could have marked the revival in favor of international trains. The health crisis could even have been a starting signal. But the result this year was disappointing.
Our colleagues from Back on Track Germany have just asked the European Commission for the progress of this relaunch. DG Move’s response is as laconic as it is despairing: no news on an action plan to restart the international train. Maybe at a later date, but nothing is decided yet.
This clearly shows Europe’s lack of interest in these railway issues.
Manage the entire European rail network
For us, it is clear that the EU must step in and follow the path taken by Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. It is necessary to manage the entire European rail network, to study an integrated European network of mainline trains (local and medium-distance trains can remain at national level) and to adapt equipment purchases and infrastructure works accordingly.
This does not prevent a certain form of liberalization in the form of calls for tenders. Or why not renationalise the network. On this issue, we take no position. What concerns us and worries the general public here is the lack of European policy which has gradually killed off the international rail network. It is heartbreaking that today the low-cost plane remains the only alternative for those with limited resources to travel medium to long distances.