Railways: making progress with the existence of other transports

To offer a competitive price and reliable service, a reduction in operating costs is vital. The key issue is whether the railway is capable of doing so. However, in the face of difficulties to reduce costs, particularly fixed costs that are very unfavorable to the railways, some political groups advocate tackling competing modes of transport. Hence the question: is it necessary to slow down the progress of a concurrent in order to increase that of the railways?

There is a great tendency now to want to put the railway back on stage. There are two reasons for that:

  • firstly because the railway is clean transport, and it could become an essential instrument for each country to achieve the climate targets;
  • but also because some political groups perceive the railway as a tool favorable to their ideology.

The first reason is less debatable. Except the abundant use of copper and steel for its design, the railway uses green energy –  electricity -, for its operation, and probably uses increasingly hydrogen on non-electrified lines. In this case, railways are indeed a good tool for achieving climate targets.

The second reason is much more debatable. It can certainly be argued that cars and aviation are polluting modes of transport, and that they have favored the globalization of industry, finance and travel. But it should also be remembered that transportation — freight trucking, cars, shipping and aviation — accounts only for approximately 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions (22 % if international aviation and maritime emissions are excluded). This means that climate targets will have to be achieved by tackling sectors other than transport, including polluting industry, home heating and building insulation. It is therefore illusory to attack only the automobile and aviation by claiming that this will solve climate problems. An hypothesis dominates according to which the left prefers to tackle mobility because it represents a strong social segregation, rather than the insulation of buildings which is likely to affect its own electorate .

It is obviously stupid to analyse the railway from the political right/left point of view. A train, a tram or a bus can just as much give a feeling of freedom of movement, just as a state transport company is not exempt from capitalism, since it has to supply itself … to private industry. However, there are sometimes worrying signs…

What do we see today? The green wave cleverly renamed « climate emergency » to stifle all debate, is used to try to get public transit back on track. But is this really for the good of the railways? One can doubt it. Some political groups use the climate cause as a weapon of war against what they call « car and air capitalism ». If the railway serves such ideological causes, we can be sure that we are on the wrong way.

Indeed, political history teaches us that ideologies have never really defended the railway as such. As Peter Hitchens points out, left-wing governments in UK, in the 1960s, 1970s and now have done little that is imaginative or bold to restore or encourage Britain’s railway system. Perhaps it’s fear of public opinion, too used to her modal choice. What left-wing activist does not have a car or does not use one? François Mitterrand, a former railway worker, did nothing to save from the disaster nearly 10,000 kilometers of small rural lines, which were supposed to « connect France to its population ». When councilors spoke about the price to be paid and the many lawsuits to come to (re)nationalise the British railways, former leader Jeremy Corbyn quickly buried the idea.

How is this possible? Quite simply because, beyond the great electoral utopias, a boomerang is coming back in your face as a resounding slap in the face: « realism ». These left-wing presidents and governments may have been subjected to strong pressure from the oil and automobile industry lobby. But not only. Above all, they found that the railways could sometimes be a political force hostile to power – more so in some countries than in others – but above all that it is needed a big river of money to get only 10 to 15% of the population travelling without cars or airplanes. However, public finances are not infinite and in some cases it is necessary to invest elsewhere, in more urgent sectors. This issue is still topical today.

Many politicians see that other mobilities could be used to achieve the climate objectives. Entrepreneurs are thus « inventing » new forms of mobility, whether at the urban level with scooters or e-bikes, or by electrification of the car fleet. Opponents of these mobilities point out that, apart from the great disorder caused by their sudden arrival, this « creative freedom » is only possible because streets, roads… and startup incubators are paid by state money. This is not false, but it does not answer the essential question: should this « creativity » be prevented to save public transport?

This question in fact demonstrates a reality: some transport is progressing faster than others. Why is this? Often because they meet the demands of users and industrialists. For example, a ferry can transport up to 450 truck trailers between Belgium and Sweden (Zeebrugge-Göteborg). This represents 10 to 12 intermodal trains. Should this ferry be banned on the grounds that it competes strongly with rail? So, when 3 truckers respond by e-mail in less than 2 hours, whereas it takes three days for the railways, should truckers be eliminated on the grounds that they are harming the railway business?

Large integrators, who can match huge investments, are also in a strong position to choose the most suitable mode of transport. The goal of these companies is customer satisfaction. They are not obliged to choose a failing railway company on the pretext that this transport is « greener ». If the railway fails, they will immediately choose another mode of transport.

It is the same for urban public transport: its « collective » side does not meet all mobility demands. Many people who appreciate left-wing policies are often the first to rush into mobile applications and self-service individual mobility. They actively participate in « digital capitalism », which is however the very opposite of what they are supposed to adhere to. Should all these innovations be banned on the pretext that they unbalance the old economic models of mass transport?

Of course, the responsiveness of truckers and maritime transport is only possible at the cost of major pollution, road congestion, wasted energy and poor working conditions. The road sector does not pay its nuisances and pollution. Aviation is too low taxed and has led to a very high consumption of short trips. The arrival of thousands of e-scooters has created a vast zone of lawlessness, as no regulations had foreseen it. This new « barbaric » business has jeopardized the fragile balance of public transport, while Uber has violently shaken up the protected taxi sector. It is also true to say that these new entrepreneurs do not come to « collaborate » but to « capture » new markets, that means a predatory capitalism instead a long-term vision.

Pollution, urban disorder and predatory capitalism are certainly not among the tools to achieve climate objectives. But neither is it about promoting public transport and railways « at any cost ». Deutsche Bahn in 1990 ate so much public money that it led to the great reform of 1994. Germany wanted to make rail transport cheaper by accepting other operators, who did not have cumbersome and administrative practices large state-owned companies. The European Commission has adopted roughly the same principles, which has sometimes been badly experienced by some countries. Those who quickly implemented a reformist or quality policy had the right reflex, but only succeeded in keeping the rail head above water.

Above all, this has meant a rethinking of the social context of railway workers. Some political groups have made this their main argument, arguing that public service « has no price when it protects workers ». Sectoral agreements have raised the wage bill in 2019, without bringing more passengers on the trains. However, it is questionable why the social exception of one sector would be essential to achieve the climate objectives. Meanwhile, the other means of transport, which claim no social exception, have made great progress, not only because some of them have had tax breaks, but above all because they have shown great creativity. Countries that have adopted a protectionist policy for their railways have not been more successful in modal shift. Three out of four Swiss people never take public transport!

Calling for more investment does not mean going back to the days of overstaffing. We must avoid equating quantity of jobs with quality of service. Putting 10 people on a platform just to watch the traffic won’t make the trains run on time. It is the signaling system that decides that. The arrival of the suitcases on wheels led to the disappearance of the luggage carrier trade. The automatic gantries liquidated the job of subway ticket controller. Automatic crossings levels eliminated the need for railway gatekeepers. Automatic couplings have greatly reduced the need for railway coupler man, for example on high-speed trains. Nevertheless, we can see that the trains run just as well. Rather than weeping over these disappearances, the real question is whether these jobs are still worthy jobs in the 21st century?

Other sectors have been able to demonstrate their reconversion: the invention of the container certainly killed the great corporation of dockers that was once necessary to unload a ship. But today’s ports work much better with fewer but more specialized personnel than in 1960. An identical way, perhaps less brutal, also awaits the railway sector if it is to be a tool for future development. This does not mean an entirely robotic and digital future.

In the meantime, the coronavirus has arrived and the trains have emptied out, making the cost of rail transport simply untenable. The SNCF is going to abolish under-utilized TGVs and in Great Britain, the net loss for the year 2020 could reach nearly £2 billion. Some observers believe that in these circumstances, to support without counting «the passenger railway does not represent value for money to the community at large.» It is this criticism that is currently all the rage in Germany.

What can political institutions do?
They can simplify their structures and clarify their processes, provides the best possible transparency, decentralize to the local level and, above all, be a facilitator rather than a policeman.

Over the past five decades, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have successfully implemented regional public transport associations (called in german Verkehrsverbund or VV), which integrate services, fares, and ticketing while coordinating public transport planning, marketing, and customer information throughout metropolitan areas. The recipe is not the interdiction of cars or individual mobility, but the collaboration and mutual consultation of regional jurisdictions and PT providers in all decision-making. These countries did so when there was still no talk of a climate emergency or low carbon transport. Simply, it was necessary to make the city centers more sustainable by prohibiting certain streets to cars, which is quite different from « prohibiting cars » within all the citie.

In the same spirit, Switzerland had created a road transport transit tax in 1992. It wasn’t money to pay Swiss railway workers, but money to build three gigantic tunnels to relieve a hundred-year-old railway infrastructure and try to reduce the number of lorries on the motorways. The aim was not to bail out a loss-making railway company « at any price », but to « help it to do better » with new infrastructures. This is called a strategic state, as opposed to an interventionist state.

The role of the State is to provide service infrastructures that are used by multiple actors. A single player is never in a position to offer all the desired mobility, you always have to rely on many actors. In general, it can be said that a successful urban transport policy relies on integrated planning of measures that combine many factors. The implementation of « without car » solutions only makes sense if citizens can count on services at a cost that is as competitive as driving a private car, which implies acceptable costs and a high level of service. Successful measures include integrated land use planning (new districts automatically served by public transport), the promotion of bicycle traffic, and the improvement of public transport by connecting regional railway with tramway systems, by tram-train, for example. Parking policy and traffic calming measures contribute toward more safety and less emissions. So, these successful transportation policies have been able to reduce private-vehicle use to around 40% of all day-to-day personal trips (perhaps even as low as 28% in Zurich according a study). It is therefore not a question of policies which are satisfied with absorbing deficits and perpetuating old social models, but real actions centered on citizens.

But there is a lot of progress to be made. While other sectors such as electricity or water distribution are regulated but then otherwise operate freely, integration of public transports requires a marketplace based on collaboration rather than competition. Although the term ‘marketplace’ implies private sector control with public sector regulation, a wholly private or public marketplace would create too many negative externalities, such as price inflexibility or a lack of diverse options. In case of integration, responsibilities are divided – a marketplace for customers, infrastructure managed by government, and assets managed by operators –, and a common goal must remain. However, it can sometimes be seen that some public actors perpetuate their rigidities, and there is a battle over who should align with whom. In many countries, the personnel costs of private operators have had to be aligned with those of public companies, without bringing more customers onto public transport or emptying the streets of their cars. Instead, public transport has been designed primarily for workers rather than citizens. Some radical political groups defend this option: the citizen should align himself with the state’s offers, not the other way round. According to them, too much to align with the wishes of the users means taking the risk of making employment more precarious…

The summary of this article shows that modal shift to rail will not be promoted by prohibiting other transport modes from progressing, nor by promoting the status quo in the railway operating and public transport. The demands of users, whether citizens or industrialists, must be met. This is how they can come back to the forefront and play an important role in the fight against global warming. Because during this time, other transports will continue to progress and reinvent themselves. No one can forbid progress and creativity. New entrepreneurs will invent yet other computer applications. The shippers will choose the ports which appear to them to be the best. Industrialists will choose the carrier that best meets their expectations and citizens still will choose better and unconstrained mobility. The fate of the railways will be improved also by favoring a fiscal, methodological and globalized approach to the transport of people and goods.

Similar articles:

2007 – Peter Hitchens – Why are trains left-wing, and cars conservative?

2011 – Tony Dutzik – Frontier Group – Rail: Neither Right Nor Left, But Forward

2020 – Sir Michael Holden – Time for a dose of old fashioned cost control