Europe calls for zero-emission transport by 2050. An opportunity for railways

28/11/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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Europe presents its mobility strategy through ten measures, five of which concern the rail sector.

After the hottest November on record, it is clear that the need to tackle this climate crisis remains as high as ever. Transport is one of the three sectors where more efforts are necessary. » This is how Frans Timmermans, leader of the Commission’s work on the European Green Deal, introduced the Union’s sustainable strategy for the next thirty years.

In December 2019, two weeks after taking office, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, presented the roadmap for the Green Deal for Europe. An investment plan of at least 750 billion euros is planned for this green pact. It will mobilise public investment and help unlock private funds through Europe’s financial tools. We were therefore waiting for more precise details concerning the implementation of this green deal.

The working document entitled « Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy – putting European transport on track for the future », released a year later by the European Commission, is a concrete action of this Green Deal. The plan presented last week includes 82 measures organized into 10 key areas for action and details the policies that the Brussels administration intends to implement to transform the transport sector into a carbon-free sector, which is a major challenge.

There will be several stages, the next one being 2030 where:  

  • At least 30 million zero-emission cars will be in operation on European roads;
  • 100 European cities will be climate neutral;
  • High-speed rail traffic will double across Europe;
  • Scheduled collective travel for journeys; under 500 km should be carbon neutral
  • Automated mobility will be deployed at large scale;
  • Zero-emission marine vessels will be market-ready.

Then will come 2035 with:

  • Zero-emission large aircraft will be market-ready;

And then finally, by 2050:

  • Nearly all cars, vans, buses as well as new heavy-duty vehicles will be zero-emission;
  • Rail freight traffic will double;A fully operational, multimodal Trans-European Transport;
  • Network (TEN-T) for sustainable and smart transport with high speed connectivity.
Le quotidien des tyroliens : un bilan carboneexécrable (photo SWDR)

To satisfy this great « green mobility », investments for 2021-2030 in vehicles (including rolling stock, ships and aircraft) and the deployment of infrastructure for renewable fuels are estimated at €130 billion per year, while the completion of the TEN-T core network to make it a truly multimodal system would still require €300 billion over the next ten years.

Innovation and digitalisation will shape how passengers and freight move around in the future if the right conditions are put in place. The strategy foresees:

  • making connected and automated multimodal mobility a reality, for example by enabling passengers to buy tickets for multimodal journeys to seamlessly switch between modes, and
  • boosting innovation and the use of data and artificial intelligence (AI) for smarter mobility.

The guidelines of this huge project highlight the railways, but also show that the other sectors, automotive and aviation, are also fully part of the solution for a decarbonized Europe in 2050. So there is no question of heavily sanctioning one sector to save another.

The fears of the oil sector
The plan is already attracting comments from various quarters, such as the International Road Transport Union (IRU), which already attacks by stating that “this plan relies on a calculation of CO2 emissions on the vehicle tailpipe and does not take into account the origin of the energy« . And the organization tries to make people believe that « diesel coaches are dramatically cleaner than already electrified rail, so we don’t understand why the commission is ignoring the unique contribution of mass passenger transport by road”. In fact, the IRU insinuates that railway electricity would be produced by coal, a German situation that does not reflect the rest of Europe at all.

This means that rail will have to organize itself intensively and with less division at the lobbying level to counter this kind of argument. This means, among other things, considering all railway entities, not just the incumbent operators.

The wind is turning in the oil sector, which implies for the manufacturers of fossil fuel-based motorizations to begin a hard transition that may call into question the whole industry.

For this vision to become a reality, the strategy identifies ten flagship areas with actions to guide policy, of which five have rail-focused suggestions.

(photo Alstom)

The hydrogen strategy
Among the threats – or opportunities, it depends – is the growing place of hydrogen in the future. The 8th last July, the European Commission unveiled plans to promote hydrogen.  It was said that low-carbon hydrogen derived from fossil fuels would be supported as a first step in order to scale up production in the short term. The railway sector, thanks in particular to Alstom, has very quickly taken up this new energy opportunity. The recent developments of hydrogen trains are not without criticism in terms of the production of this fuel. Today 99% of all hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels or from electricity that is generated from fossil fuels, and the CO2 footprint is substantial.

But afterwards, this fuel of the future should be produced entirely from renewable energy. However, extensive infrastructure is needed to support the EU Commission’s goals for zero-emission road vehicles to take over. A plan is to install 1,000 hydrogen stations and 1 million public recharging points by 2025. By 2030, 2 million more recharging stations would be added. This indicates that the EU Commission is planning on rapid adoption of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles in the next decade. Hydrogen therefore remains one of the keys to decarbonization in order to achieve the 2050 objectives. 

High speed train is a major focus
One of the 10 key areas is making interurban and urban mobility more sustainable and healthier. The Commission proposes the construction of more high-speed rail lines on short-haul routes so that passengers have carbon-neutral choices for travel below 500km. When the high-speed line between Barcelona and Madrid opened, the modal split shifted from 85 percent plane /15 percent train in 2008 to 38 percent air / 62 percent rail in 2016. The construction of high-speed lines is turning its back on the idea of certain political groups of opting for a railway without concrete and without works. The continuation of the Stuttgart-Ulm project in Germany and HS2 in Great Britain demonstrates this. Further lines are being planned throughout Europe.

>>> To read: High speed train remains still necessary for modal shift

>>> To read: Sustainable railways mean infrastructure works !

Large part of freight on rails
The European Green Deal intends for a large part of the 75 percent of inland freight currently transported by road to shift to rail and inland waterways. This is a subject that has been talked about for a long time and so far there has been no noticeable progress. The European Commission is now moving towards the drafting of a legal framework which meets the needs of the rail freight industry. The revision of the rail freight corridors regulation and the TEN-T regulation, which are included in the strategy, was the right move as the two regulations needed to be addressed together given their mutual importance to one another. The European freight association ERFA also called for legislation to ensure that rail freight corridors meet key parameters such as compatibility with the P400 loading gauge and facilitating 740m-long trains on all corridors.

This TEN-T concept does not seem to give entirely satisfactory, particularly with regard to the « one-stop shop » and the demand for international train paths, which is very difficult to meet at present. Some countries are more advanced for works than others, and national political considerations (various elections, change of coalition, etc.) often hinder the adoption of budgets and adherence to the timetable. The rail freight corridor does not make any national politician dream…

Connected and automated multimodal mobility
Another area highlighted is the digital sector, which presents many tools. Among them, the famous 5G which is currently the subject of sometimes irrational debates. This technology is however unavoidable for the future, because if Europe does not take part in it, other continents will do it in our place. We have frequently discussed in our articles the need to digitize the railway sector, which lags other modes of transport. The Commission has reaffirmed that further efforts towards developing train automation are needed, e.g. through joint undertakings like Shift2Rail. The Commission wants already to update the technical specifications for interoperability (TSIs) to enable rail automation and traffic management on cross-border main lines. In fact, these TSIs must are to cover technologies such as 5G and satellite data, which brings us back to what we were saying earlier. All of this will also help with the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS), the new railway communication reference. On the other hand, it will probably be necessary to make the ERTMS/ETCS more accessible in terms of installation costs, especially for rail operators who currently do not see the added value of the system. The Commission has not specified anything on this important issue, which leads us to the fifth key area.

>>> To read: our technology and innovation page

Reinforcing the Single Market
The Commission is not abandoning its concept of a single market and even counts on the Fourth Railway Package to boost the railway market, which is considered too compartmentalized and still too unattractive. According to it, this will make railway operators more responsive to transport authority needs. This, however, depends on the rapid and not too expensive approval of unified rolling stock in each country. Harmonized EU-wide vehicle approvals is since september the mission of the European Railway Agency (ERA), would accelerate homologation for cross-border trains, despite some political reluctance that this still raises in terms of national sovereignty. The Commission also says it will look into the current rules on track access charges and whether they offer the right incentives to boost competitive markets and the attractiveness of rail.

It will now be very interesting to follow all these issues in the years to come. In the immediate term, we are entering 2021, which has been declared the ‘Year of the Railways’, and for which a new communication from the European Commission is expected in March. Things are moving and it is the ideal time for our railways and governments to undertake a mental shift and to apprehend the world that is coming, rather than shutting themselves away on past recipes…

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