Reconnecting cross-border railway services

It isn’t new: borders are not only used to delimit a territory, but above all to circumscribe a social policy and the societal habits of a nation. It is this reality that makes the viability of cross-border rail services so difficult.

Usually people don’t understand why there are so many differences from one country to another. But it is not very difficult to explain.

The reality has to be borne in mind that Europe was growing since 1957 with an apparent contradiction. On one hand by promoting the idea of unity and solidarity on the European scale, and on the other hand, by growing up with the existing of historic political and economic rivalries of European member states, as well as the existence of strong regional identities and communities. France is not Germany, while Austria is not Greece or Portugal. The Scandinavians claim other cultures while the Eastern countries have to turn their backs on fifty years of communist policy. These differences appear mainly in terms of law, security, geopolitics and social habits. They are difficult to reconcile, as we have seen recently with the actions against the pandemic, which differ greatly from one country to another. The reasons why it is so difficult to operate trains of state operators across two small borders stem from these differences. Crossing a border means that a state administration is going to operate something on « another territory » where the law of the former no longer applies. And this is where the challenges begin…

There are a number of essential elements to be taken into account when operating a cross-border rail service. European commission is aware of the challenges that remain and many barriers to cross-border projects which will remain in the medium term. EU classifies them under the following categories:
Administrative and legal: – different authorisation, concession and procurement rules in Member States; – difference in legislation such as the award of public service obligation contracts and the application of passenger rights.
Political: unaligned political priorities (which is a key issue for the success of small cross-border projects).
Planning process / low local acceptance levels (e.g. whether local citizens support the project or not).
Technical: implementation of harmonised technical rules still lacking, leading to different standards applicable to rail lines and rolling stock.
Operational: different languages, heterogeneous performances of services on two sides of the border, various approaches to infrastructure charging, difficulties with cross-border ticketing and access to service facilities.

First of all, the two countries (or neighboring regions) must agree on the de facto deficit that this type of rail service entails. One of the two countries may consider that a cross-border service brings it nothing at all! It therefore sees no reason why it should have to pay with its own taxpayers’ money, who could complain « that the money goes elsewhere, for foreigners ». In Geneva, it took more than 10 years of negotiations between Switzerland and France to come up with the Léman-Express, a project that will go into operation in December 2019… with the French strikes as a welcome!

Until recently, SNCF trains arriving at Port-Bou returned empty to Cerbère, at 5 kilometres in France (PHOTO FERRAN ARJONA VIA LICENSE FLICKR)

Territoriality can sometimes lead to absurdity and waste when it opposites to climate challenges. Example on Port-Bou-Cerbère, on the Spanish-French border, where an outdated border arrangement leaded to the situation that many cross-border trains are not usable by passengers, because trains have to return empty to their country of origin! A situation that has finally been eliminated…

Secondly, it is important to know which customers are likely to use a cross-border service and where exactly they go on the other side of the border. For example, not all students who use the Tournai-Lille actually go to Lille-Flandre, but to Villeneuve d’Ascq, a university campus, which fortunately has a railway station. The problem is that some cities locate their offices and schools wherever it suits them, without taking cross-border flows into account. This is the case in Luxembourg, where the city has created the Kirchberg plateau to the north of the city, far from the station. This plateau is also frequented by high-level jobs, which are unlikely to be interested in public transport. So we are faced with passengers that has little financial means (students) and with people that never takes the train.

French Dmu Bombardier Class 82700 at station Tournai, Belgium (photo

Thirdly, gaps in the cross-border passenger rail network are not necessarily caused by missing elements of infrastructure. There were, especially after the Second World War, some lines that were not reopened or were quickly closed, but all the major routes were put back into service and then electrified. However, promoters of cross-border rail traffic can only consider train services where there are tracks, unless they invent new lines, which is very rare in Europe. So we are faced with a a supply-led policy that may sometimes not correspond to what we said in the second point.

Fourthly, there are the technical aspects. One rail network is not the same than other, especially about train detection. Indeed, each network detects trains using a system of frequencies sent into the rails. These frequencies differ greatly from one country to another. Country-specific detection elements must be installed underneath the rolling stock, otherwise they will not be compatible. Deutsche Bahn, for example, requires a a detection coil in a metal box under the bogie, always right on the right of the track in direction of travel. Belgium requires a « crocodile brush » in the middle, in the axle of the track. The Dutch have a different type of detection skid. However, even if one of these elements works well on one network, it is likely to disturb the frequencies of the neighboring network, and thus to alarm the signaling!

Others technical problems exist. For example, at all border sections in Poland, analogue radio communication is used, while in almost all German border stations and some Czech stations there is a modern GSM-R communication system. This fact causes obvious difficulties in communication between the train drivers and the train dispatchers because the vehicle crossing the border should be equipped with both systems.

Europe believed that these « small issues » would be resolved quickly. Fatal error: the ERTMS system implemented for more than 20 years now is accumulating software versions. Each update involves re-testing every network on which the train will run. The Luxembourg railways (CFL), for example, have decided to switch their entire network to ETCS from January 2020. This caused panic in the SNCF where it was necessary not only to install ETCS on the rolling stock, but also to test it. Luxembourg’s two neighboring operators therefore must have now sub-series of rolling stock, which greatly complicates operating flexibility. The proof that a politician can do nothing is when the French Minister of Transport had asked for a six-month postponement, but Luxembourg refused!

Two Coradia trainsets : CFL 2203 + SNCF 387 at Luxembourg-Ville (photo MPW57 via wikipédia)

A concrete example of this kind of decision is that interoperable train sets are more costly than non-interoperable train sets. Taking the example of a 5-car Stadler Flirt3 EMU, the extra costs is € 1 million for dual-voltage and €2 million for triple-voltage. The cost of retrofitting a 3-car German DMU with the Polish automatic safety system SHP has been estimated at €275 000 – €450 000 per train set for prototypes and €75 000 – €90 000 for serial installation.

Fortunately, voltage differences at the overhead line are no longer a major problem nowadays, as the technology for transforming current is known and the necessary switchgear gets smaller and smaller with each development of new rolling stock.

Finally, there is the obligatory good understanding between the two neighboring public services. Onboard staff is a challenge, as they sometimes have to master the language of the neighboring country. It’s depends of which « border » station. In Ventimiglia, Irun or Aachen, it isn’t speak French, while in Domodossola or Chiasso, it isn’t speak German either! At least officially … However, the railway workers know how to show good will.

Who will pay the deficit?
This is the biggest challenge: agreeing on the deficits and the content of the service. «Competent authorities of the Member states can play a crucial role for implementing cross-border passenger services on these lines,» says European commission. That’s pure diplomatic language! On the contrary, each country prefers to rely on « its » operator to solve these problems. Indeed, the deficits result from various factors, and in particular the salary costs which can differ from one operator to another. With the Léman-Express around Geneva, social conventions differ fundamentally between two countries which have no culture in common, except the French language. Originally, only one operating company, Lemanis, was expected for the greater Geneva region,both in Switzerland and France. But it is almost certain that this will remain at the stage of cooperation with the two operators CFF and SNCF, as the social and regulatory aspects are so different. The best is to read this forum – in french –, to realize what we are talking about, concerning cross-border traffic!

French Regiolis on « Swiss territory », at the new station Chênes-Bourg in Geneva (photo Hoff1980 via wikipedia)

In cases where this is difficult, Europe is called to the rescue. With Léman Pass, a single pass ticket is enough for your entire cross-border journey between Switzerland and France. But what seems to be obvious around Geneva has nevertheless had to receive the support of the European cross-border cooperation programme Interreg France-Switzerland 2014-2020 in the development and interoperability of the distribution tools of its partners. To this end it has received financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) of €1,341,982.80 and a Swiss federal grant of CHF 150,000.

The great problem of cross-border tariffs.
Another problem is that at the legal level, a rail operator can only sell tickets between two national stations. There is therefore a « hole » between the two stations on either side of the border, where no commercial action seems possible. For example, Belgian flat rate Go Pass tickets do not cover the last kilometers to Rosendaal or Eijsden, in the Netherlands! Same problem between Hergenrath and Aachen (DE) or Arlon and Kleinbettingen (LU). This forces you to buy an international ticket, which is absolute nonsense when you claim to be working for a Europe without borders. Some operators nonetheless present a little more attractive formulas, but it is generally necessary to search the ‘big galaxy’ of Internet to realize their existence …

With Arriva, for example, between Maastricht and Aachen, the Dutch national OV-Schipkaart card is valid as far as the German city. No international tickets are required, as we can read on their website. Conversely, the German NRW fare is extended as far as the Dutch railway station in Heerlen. These are good examples of integration for which passengers are very sensitive.

The importance of the Transport authority
This is the basis for success. But the legislative aspects are crucial! In France, for example, the regions, as Transport Authority (TA), cannot conclude an agreement if the neighboring TA is a State (like Luxembourg, Belgium or Italy). Indeed, such an agreement is impossible because it is contrary to the provisions of the French General Code of Territorial Collectivities. A Region must then ask the SNCF (and not another operator?), to conclude an agreement with the competent railway operator of the neighboring State. This is why, in Belgium, politicians do not have the ability to set this issue: only SNCB, CFL, DB, NS and SNCF have to agree on often contradictory objectives.

When a single authority takes the initiative, it is obviously quite a different matter. For example, the Maastricht-Aix la Chapelle cross-border service is an initiative of the Dutch province of Limburg, which operates with the operator of its choice, in this case Arriva. In January 2019, trains were running between the two cities. A similar extension was originally planned to Liege, Belgium, as part of the Euregio. But it was necessary to approve the Stadler Emus, to enter into negotiations with the only railway AOT available, the Belgian state and … to depart from the principle of balance in the SNCB’s financing rules. On the German side, the Dutch were able to negotiate with a more accommodating Transport authority…

Arriva Nederlands with a Flirt 550 in station Aachen-Hbf, in 2019. To date, no Arriva train to Liège in Belgium (photo Rob Dammers via wikipedia)

It should also be noted, despite some criticism, that there are other good examples of integration. These include the TILO (Treni Regionali Ticino Lombardia), a cross-border railway service which runs from the canton of Ticino in Switzerland (Locarno/Lugano) to Malpensa airport. TILO is also integrated into Milan’s suburban network. It is a 50 % SBB and 50 % Trenitalia joint venture which manages four lines, two of which are cross-border. At TILO, there were no « cultural battles » over the choice of rolling stock: it was Stadler with Emus Flirt RABe524 / ETR 524. A fine example of two state-owned companies investing in a single company. So far, neither the SNCF, the SNCB nor the CFL have dared to take the same step. So yes, we are entitled to criticize…

One of the italian’s Flirt, ETR 524, in station Bellinzona in May 2007 (photo Jan Oosterhuis via wikipedia)

What are the solutions for improving cross-border traffic?
Certain ideologies must first be defeated. A joint venture can be a positive response, if operating costs are correctly shared. But cooperation clearly has its limits. Gérard Balantzian, a professor of management in France, cites the four essential criteria for the success of an alliance between two companies:

  • Cultural convergences;
  • Recognition;
  • Common interests;
  • Confidence.

The first point, as we have seen above, is the most problematic in the railway community. Common interests are also a point of divergence, when one must work for the wealth of the neighboring city, such as Luxembourg or Geneva, which is criticized by some local or regional elected representatives. In any case, it should be keep in mind that the specific characteristics of strategic alliances (multiple decision-making centres, permanent negotiations, conflicts of interest) inevitably make cooperation an unstable form of rapprochement between companies. It is therefore not a magic formula…

Thalys had to transform itself into a company because it was unable to manage staff and passenger information properly, which was the responsibility of the two « shareholders », SNCB and SNCF, with a lot of wasted time and contradictions. But railway workers have a bad experience with this type of company, which they attribute to « privatisation »! The States must also stop seeing « their » operator as the ambassador of national industry. The Léman-Express did not succeed in obtaining a unified material: it was necessary to defend Stadler on one side, Alstom on the other. Having two rolling stock increases maintenance costs and workers’ knowledge of the rolling stock. On the contrary, being a single company means having control over purchasing, operations, maintenance and leasing contracts, as Eurostar did with its choice of TGV Siemens.

Of course, it is not a question of operating a cross-border regional service such as Thalys or Eurostar. The operator who would manage such a service would have to do so under a public service delegation contract, where each party provides its subsidies. The joint venture will then be able to conduct a single fare policy, with a single ticket and connects the cross-border ticketing with the national ticketing on either side.

Meridian « Transdev » local train at station Salzburg-Hbf, ready to go to Munich (photo

The good news is that there are still 156 cross-border relations in Europe (2018), but many are only extensions of a few kilometers inside the neighboring country. In some cases, the signaling and catenary systems remain the same, allowing for example Brenner to arrive « on foreign ground » without having to equip the rolling stock with expensive elements of both networks. In many cases, it is no need for a joint venture and the two regional tariffs « stick » to each other in a single border station, with no « commercial hole » between two stations.

Most passenger train services in the EU (83%) are organized on the basis of PSO contracts. But most of them would require revenue support for the proposed train service on at least one side of the border, in the assumption that amortized rolling stock were already available. Subsidies would be greater if at a future time rolling stock procurement and leasing costs are taken into account.

Getting better figures
Charging Europe is obviously convenient for some authorities, but this requires valid and verifiable data. This is something that is sorely lacking, even for a high-level institution such as the European Commission. This is why the EU wants to see that data on cross-border rail traffic should be included in the next revision of the regulation on rail transport statistics and should be gathered much more carefully by Eurostat in order to be useful for European transport modelling. Transport modelling requires accurate data. But this requires the cooperation of state operators, who are reluctant because they feel they are covered by commercial secrecy. Europe will not be able to justify funds via his politics instruments if it does not have reliable data. The 2016 Rail Market Monitoring Scheme recommended to enhance “data availability on the state of infrastructure and its capabilities”. The European Railway Agency ERA could also become a technical support to speed up the development of cross-border rail links, particularly in terms of interoperability.

To make cross-border links attractive, it is necessary to change many habits and make some structural changes, in a very inward-looking railway world that fears « the ideas of the neighbor ». Those who promote these cross-border routes and talk about Europe at regional level cannot, at the same time, promote a railway on a strictly national basis. It’s one or the other…