Europe needs a high-speed rail network that can replace planes

You can have breakfast in Paris, lunch at Frankfurt, and dinner in Vienna without having to fly.

06 July 2022 Wednesday 02:18
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Europe needs a high-speed rail network that can replace planes

You can have breakfast in Paris, lunch at Frankfurt, and dinner in Vienna without having to fly.

Imagine a network modern, fast, and comfortable trains that run between all major cities in the European Union. This would be a reliable, comfortable, and sustainable alternative to flying.

This was the vision of rail industry leaders from Lyon, France on June 29th, amid ambitious European plans for high-speed rail to double its use by 2030 and triple its current level by 2050.

These ambitious goals can only be achieved if the high-speed network is expanded rapidly and massively. But are these realistic and feasible?

Europe has thousands of kilometers dedicated high-speed rail, which is a rare find in other parts of the globe.

France's TGVs, Germanys ICE, and Spain's AVE have all transformed rail travel in the past 40 years. However, they are still largely focused on domestic markets.

It's not surprising. Political pressure to maximize taxpayer benefits is natural when countries invest billions in infrastructure.

Even within the European Union, building lines across international borders creates tension about who pays what, how contracts are allocated, conflicting standards and regulations, and many other obstacles.

It's been all too easy to put off difficult projects until they become another's problem for decades.

A stifling bureaucracy

Even though international high-speed lines are being built, often at a high cost, national loyalty, stifling bureaucracy or high access fees prevent some routes from reaching their full potential.

Others, such as Paris-London via the Channel Tunnel and Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam/Cologne are more successful but could -- and should -- be luring many more passengers away from short-haul air travel.

A group of European organizations has committed to a new study that highlights the many benefits of a high-speed rail network linking major cities and national capitals.

These include the European Commission and the Community of European Railways. The European Rail Supply Industry is also included. AllRAIL represents non-state-owned railroads.

The group will examine how to finance tens of thousand of kilometers of new lines, and how radical transformations of the continent's railway network can help the EU achieve its "Green Deal" goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

While some of the expansion will occur on existing routes, others will be built or planned. Many more will be required to support the vision of European leaders.

CNN Travel spoke with Alberto Mazzola (executive director of the Community of European Railways), to explain that the group desired a "masterplan" that would show the socio-economic advantages of high-speed connections between major European cities.

He stated that while a lot of progress has been made so far (Paris-Lyon and Milan-Rome, Barcelona and Madrid are national successes stories for rail), there is still much to do if the ambitious goals of the European Green Deal and Smart and Sustainable Mobility Strategy will be achieved. "If we build it where should it go?"

This is where the first round will take place.

There will be a lot of arguments between the competing interests when it comes to deciding which routes should be prioritized and which cities will benefit.

Cities will want to claim their place in the final network, as it is likely to have a huge impact on Europe's future development over the next 100 year.

Some EU officials hail the proposals as the future for sustainable travel in Europe, provided that operators are able to make it cost-effective and efficient. Others, however, have taken more cautious views.


Jon Worth, a cross-border rail advocate, said, "Until I see concrete projects, rolling stock orders, and timetables,"

"Unfortunately, we've all heard it before and this sounds just like railways over-promising yet again. We know from experience that they won't be able to deliver this network within the timeframes they suggest."

France, Spain, and Italy all have established high-speed rail networks that link their largest cities. There are also plans for additional lines.

France has made more investments than any other country in recent years to build new connections with its neighbours, including international routes to Belgium and the UK.

The Lyon-Turin route, currently under construction, is controversial due to environmental impact and financial probity. It will provide a fast link below the Savoy Alps, connecting France's second city with the northern Italian industrial cities.

Now outside the European Union, the United Kingdom -- or more specifically London -- remains plugged into the European network via the Channel Tunnel, but sadly there will be no physical connection between its under-construction $118 billion (PS88 billion) north-south High Speed 2 line and the existing London-Paris/Brussels routes used by Eurostar..

Germany, which is located in the middle of Europe and shares borders with nine other countries, will play an important role in any pan European network. The German government's proposal for "TEE2.0" to revive the Trans-Europe Express was announced in 2019. It is part of its $88 billion "Deutschland Takt (regular interval schedule) program. This program aims to provide inter-city rail services between all German cities and towns that are at least a certain size by 2030.

The greatest benefits can be found in countries without high-speed rails. Czech Republic and France are collaborating to build new 350 km per hour (217 mph), lines that will transform journey times between Prague and Brno, and provide faster international connections between Austria, Slovakia and southern Poland.

Greener and faster

Poland plans to join high-speed clubs with routes that radiate from Warsaw, Lodz and Wroclaw to Poznan. Co-operation with its neighbours is also being considered for extensions towards Prague and Bratislava, though they are unlikely to be realized until the 2040s.

Busy international routes crossing the Alps and Pyrenees are more problematic. These natural barriers have been a problem for travelers for centuries.

Munich, in southern Germany, is a good example. Milan in Italy is another. These industrial powerhouses lie less than 500 km (300 miles) apart and are closer together than their respective national capitals. However, they are separated by the Alps.

The slow rail and road connections mean airlines take up most of the inter-city short-haul business. But, faster direct trains could turn that around.

The 64-kilometer-long Brenner Bas Tunnel, which runs between Innsbruck in Austria and Fortezza, Italy, will be open in 2032. It will reduce travel time by around 70 minutes when it opens.

EU statistics show that 17 of the 20 busiest European air routes cover distances less than 434 miles (703 kilometers). This is exactly the type of distances at which city-to-city train can provide faster, cleaner, and more sustainable journeys if there is the right infrastructure.

According to a report by environmental groups in France, Poland, Spain, and France, a Paris-Berlin flight emits six times more carbon dioxide than a train journey. According to estimates, flights of less than 621 miles (11,000 km) between European countries and within Europe create 28 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

According to Alberto Mazzola of Community of European Railways carbon emissions trading could be an important tool for funding large-scale investments required to build a European-wide high-speed rail network.

"The EU's total CO2 emissions amount to 3.8 billion tonnes each year. Transport accounts for more that one billion tonnes." The additional revenue from the reduction of carbon allowances in the road and aviation sectors could be used for public transport improvements.

The EU currently charges 50 euros per ton for excess carbon emissions from cars, airliners and trucks, but it could rise to EUR80 per ton. It could increase the rail upgrade fund by around 8 billion euros per year if only 10% of this revenue is reinvested in transportation.

"I feel that there is a real positive desire to invest in modal shift now, but it's important to move quickly," Mazzola says.

Networks integrated

Technology such as digital signaling and automatic train operation will be just as important as civil engineering to improve rail travel and attract millions of passengers.

The Community of European Railways considers it a top priority to create an independent ticketing platform that will allow all European fares and schedules to be gathered on one platform.

This information could be integrated into other modes of transport by 2030, offering door-to-door information as well as fares for travelers, regardless of whether they travel by bus, train, bike, tram, or any combination thereof.

This level of integration is already common in Austria, Switzerland, and to a lesser degree, Germany. However, elsewhere in Europe, the quality of information is inconsistent to say the least.

Even with the best efforts of certain governments and state-owned operators in Italy and Spain, high-speed competition is still proving popular with passengers. It offers better services, higher frequency and lower fares, and it's proving to be popular.

AllRAIL and other organizations are pushing for similar reforms in other EU countries, but the progress is slow.

Nick Brooks, secretary-general of ALLRAIL, stated that "we want to see high speed trains with 1,000 seats each connecting places throughout Europe on a regular basis."

This will result in low fares and high revenues. Rail can achieve greater and more than other long-distance transport modes. This study will allow high-speed rail in Europe to be the backbone for long-distance transport.

Factor of covid

By building high-speed railways, you can increase your capacity and make more space for freight trains as well as regional/local trains.

After World War II, when main roads were at capacity, countries built autobahns and highways. High-speed railways are the equivalent to motorways. They take the longest long-distance traffic away from existing lines and create capacity.

Although high-speed trains are the focus of attention and investment, many people will benefit from the modal shift through improved local and urban train services. Transferring freight from roads to rail is a win-win situation for everyone.

However, it is difficult to deliver such a broad-ranging, ambitious, and expensive package of new railway projects in more than 20 countries, with different priorities and budgets, especially in these uncertain times.

It is estimated that European railways suffered losses of more than $52 million during the pandemic. Only one-fifth has been filled by compensation from the EU and national governments.

The 20% drop in weekly commuter traffic on weekdays, which is the long-term backbone of railway revenues, is equally alarming. Railway managers are concerned that if they don’t close the gap, cuts may become inevitable even though long-distance travel and leisure travel have recovered more strongly than before.

It will take years to complete the work required due to the sheer size of the proposals. Even if everything goes according plan.

While financial support through emissions trading and the EU will help in many cases, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe's, it remains to see if the European Union can follow China in building such ambitious high-speed rail networks in such a short period of time.

Top image: An Italian Frecciarossa high-speed train. Credit: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images



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