🇪🇺Travel by train in Europe: Where are we heading?
Long-distance travelling in Europe.
It is about trains.
The European Union is trying hard to make train travelling more popular. With an initiative called DiscoverEU that provides free travel rail passes for 60,000 18 to 20 year old Europeans (apply here until 26 October), with the current European Year of Rail, and predominately by improving the railway routes.
How is Europe doing by that?
Progress moves at a snail's pace. But the truth also includes: Harmonizing the European rail network is a major challenge. Just a few decades ago, there were only national railway companies and rail networks. Each country had its own rules. In Europe, there were five different track gauges, twenty-one signalling systems, six types of railway electrification systems and an endless number of different national regulations.
What has changed since then?
After a decline in rail transport from the 1960s to the 1980s (due to the expansion of road and air traffic), the European Union decided that the reform and liberalization of the railway market was the only promising way to go. The first step (in 1991) was to "erase" the national borders within the EU by establishing a unified institutional and legislative framework to enable efficient and unified rail transport. Then the market was liberalized, which meant an introduction of competition. Its aim was to improve the quality of the railway transport services.
Did it work out?
What was essentially done to create competition: the track (called network) got unbundled from the transport of passengers and goods. The rail network has been recognized as a natural monopoly and therefore remained financed by the states and under their direct control. The transport of freight and people has been formed (or better: has been separated) from the old national railway companies. Just these parts of the railway companies entered the competition (the network remained state-owned). That worked well for freight transport. The competition improved the service.
What about passenger transport?
More complicated. Passenger transport is often not profitable but desired nonetheless. That is why the state is needed, which awards train connections through tenders. At least that's the problem with regional connections. Long-distance transport, however, is often profitable. Therefore the number of long-distant connections is increasing steadily. The length of sections of lines designed for trains that can go faster than 250 km/h increased from 1000 km in 1990 to more than 9000 in 2020. Nowadays, it takes 3 hr 20 min from Paris to Amsterdam, 2 hr 50 min from Vienna to Budapest and 4 hr 40 min from Berlin to Prague (check this European Railway map that shows the bigger cities in Europe, to which cities they are connected and how long it takes to travel between them.)
And the future?
It’s bright. There are many cross-border projects underway in Europe. Two examples: The Brenner Base Tunnel between Austria and Italy, and the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link between Germany and Denmark (more projects here).
The expansion of rail transport will not happen overnight. But bit by bit, switching from air traffic to rail becomes increasingly attractive.