(photo Hitachi Rail)
2021 has been declared the Year of the Railways in Europe. However, there are two areas that need a strongly renewed approach. Otherwise, the train will remain an invisible object in the world of transport.
Since many decades, the train is a symbol of industrial development and national pride for many European countries, and the importance of railways shows no sign of waning. But unlike the car industry or aviation, which have global coverage, the railway has remained a very « national thing », both technically and culturally. As a result, there are major differences in approach to technology and operations. It also and above all results in a lack of intense lobbying of policy makers. The Brussels-based railway groupings are of course doing their best, but it is still not enough. The weight of the airline industry is such that a country like Sweden, which has proclaimed itself « the flight shame », is forced to consolidate its own airline sector to emerge from the crisis of the pandemic.
It is also because of the lack of weight rail sector that the rescue of Eurostar is so discussed. If France and Great Britain have been quick to release funds for their aircraft and airports, it is because aviation has always been the global ambassador of every country, the national flagship, unlike the railways. IATA’s disproportionate weight is further exacerbated by certain forms of ‘compensation’ granted by the political authorities, such as tax-free regional airports ‘saved by the low-cost industry’. However, the return on investment of this generous policy has not been proven. And then there is the fact that IATA’s 290 airlines share a lot in common, whereas Europe’s different rail networks fear their neighbour’s ideas. One only has to look at the differences in approach for example about night trains, the definition of Eurocity or tunnel construction to see this…
There is no question here of pitting modes of transport against each other, each having its own relevance. The world of tomorrow will still have planes in the sky and cars on our roads. The priority, on the other hand, is to show that the railways are one of the tools for achieving the climate objectives. But to do this, we will have to play on a much larger field and abandon certain national egos. At first sight, this seems very difficult.
Unlike the automobile or aviation, the railway is very much embedded in the national politics of each country, with its interventionism and socio-economic habits. It depends very heavily on government subsidies, not only to invest or renovate, but also to pay staff salaries. Conversely, pilots and mechanics are not paid by the state, but by the company that employs them, which is very different. The car industry only runs thanks to the massive purchase and use of cars by citizens. Of course, this massive use is linked to road-friendly taxation and to the colossal investments undertaken by the authorities to provide a maximum of roads. Some economists say that states lose a lot of tax revenue in this way. But in this case, the real question to ask is why the States are making so much effort for the road and much less for the railways?
The other major issue is infrastructure. Unlike the road, the rail network is a closed environment where you have to get permission from a signal box to drive. Of course, airspace is also a controlled environment, but there is nothing technological about the sky and any aircraft can get there with an authorised route. On the road, you don’t need a permit, just a tidy vehicle and your own eyes for safety. With the railways, the infrastructure is, on the contrary, a very high-tech tool, linked to the problem of train braking, which requires significant traffic monitoring and a mountain of safety processes. Electrification, although described as « green energy », requires a lot of protection and precautions to be taken. For train detection, the frequencies injected into the rails differ from one country to another. What works in one country can disturb the signalling of the neighbouring network. Why can’t this be changed quickly on a European scale? Because every change to the infrastructure has an impact on the railway vehicles, which must be approved every time. In addition, when crossing a railway border, the traction current and the detection of trains on the track are different. This means that each locomotive has to be fitted with the safety system (emergency stop) specific to each country, which has a cost. This is fundamentally different from road and aviation. Once a motorway arrives at the border, it is the same type of motorway that you find immediately on the other side. There is no impact on the vehicles, just some traffic rules. All airports in the world are alike…
Certain digital technologies are available for better signalling and for putting more trains on a line. The European ERTMS concept is part of this progress, but its implementation is very slow and requires a lot of energy. ERTMS/ETCS requires changing sometimes older trains. Some networks have to invest more than others, and this causes tensions. Sometimes some engineers think it is not worth it, when old trains will be scrapped in a few years. There are then « transition periods », with some trains having ETCS and others not, which is detrimental to line throughput as we have to align with the old technologies. Transforming rolling stock can sometimes be very expensive, even if it is in the long term. This is where we find the problem of the railway and the state: how to pay for the cost of transformation when governments decide they have other priorities?
This is where we see how necessary effective lobbying is. With a triple objective. Firstly, to demonstrate that rail is a tool that can help the climate cause, which might please the politicians. Secondly, to demonstrate that rail can eliminate its obsolete technologies and rebuild itself on the basis of European rather than national standards. Finally, it must also be demonstrated that the railway is an instrument that can be operated at a reasonable cost to the community.
First and foremost, the rail sector should stand together and not wage war between public and private operators. A train is still a train and the rails belong to the state, which must do everything possible to ensure that it is used intensively. We must stop making the railways a political object. All available ideas and sources of money should be mobilised without ideological discrimination. We need to talk about a unified railway, but with plural players, as IATA does, which does not care about the shareholding of its members, as long as there is a common objective. It is not the logo on the locomotive that counts, but the service provided with safety, sustainability and quality at a price acceptable to all.
Otherwise, our politicians may look elsewhere for their climate objectives…
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