Next year, 2021, will be a new opening for the European rail transport called European Year of Rail. It will touch upon creating a sustainable, attractive and easy accessible rail infrastructure to the people in the European continent. A minority does not seem to agree…
In 2017, 27 % of total EU-28 greenhouse gas emissions came from the transport sector (22 % if international aviation and maritime emissions are excluded). CO2 emissions from transport increased by 2.2 % compared with 2016. With the current green wave, the train has been suddenly back on stage as a low-carbon transport. A good idea but beware, people only use the rail alternative when it exists at an affordable price and with a high level of service. We have proof of this with the opening of the TGV in 1981 in France as well as with all the other high-speed lines in Europe. Without these high levels of service, we would still have people flying 600 kilometers by plane, which is not sustainable. On a more local scale, numerous railway line rebuilds have brought the population back to the trains. In some cases, a lot of concrete had to be poured and the layout of the tracks had to be revised (see new main Station in Vienna or the Zurich S-Bahn). All this costs a lot of money, but there are no good railways without good infrastructures.
Of course any new railway infrastructure, especially a large-scale infrastructure project such as HS2 or Stuttgart 21 in Germany have impact wildlife sites and on the nearest residents. Land use is certainly the main driver of biodiversity loss globally. However, compared to other transportation systems, such as roads, less is known about the impact of railways on wildlife, as well as its specificities. Whereas there is a large body of research on road ecology, much less exists on railway ecology.
Unfortunally, this seems to have been an opportunity for radical groups to decree any form of railway infrastructure as a destruction of the planet! These people imagine with a lot of folklore that a simple train is enough for modal shift. The real question is why the current lines without modernisation work would be sustainable and ecologically more virtuous? The answer is that their home-made version of the rail – the little train that takes its time -, is an argument that is actually aimed at degrowth. In addition, the little train is also a weapon to put also to the credit of another fight. Concrete, construction, industry, design offices, steel, copper mined so far away on other poor continents (for electrical cables), and frenzy of long-distance travelling, all of this represents capitalism, considered as destructive to the planet.
It is with this idea in mind that the night train thus seems to have been elevated to the rank of magic to avoid, for example, the TGV lines and major infrastructure works. Environmentalists and others see overnight trains as a perfect mix of low-carbon mobility without the need for costly additional infrastructure. However, these two rail transports have their own clientele and do not obey the same market segments. The TGV is for fast journeys between 200 and 800 kilometres, in head-on competition with aviation, while the night train is designed for longer distances. The TGV is a volume transport, carrying a lot of passengers, when the night train is rather a niche market, for a clientele of leisure, and possibly business. Running night trains certainly does not mean stopping the continuation of the high speed programme nor to avoid construction sites like in Stuttgart or Paris-Nord. Putting these two forms of transport in ideological opposition does the railways a disservice. Both types of trains must grow in parallel, in particular for the viability of the railway companies.
The lack of infrastructure is long known has a cascading impact on the nation’s economy, negatively affecting business , employment, personal income, and the standard of living of citizens. We can see the African continent: is this what we want?
Some groups propose a new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we re-use and refashion the existing stock of railway lines, and explore less impactful ways of travel. They criticize too much focus on large, expensive projects rather than on real needs at the local level. This may be true in countries that have not delegated enough to the local level. But for those that make extensive use of decentralization, regional authorities play a huge role by draw up transport strategies and plans at regional and local level, and to decide on investments and the role of rail. However, playing localism against the national and the international also suits the theories of degrowth but carries the risk of impoverishing the country and its railways. It is the snake that bites its own tail…
Combating new rail infrastructure is an aberration and runs counter to a sustainable transport system. It is know that railways require less land occupancy than other means of transportation. Of course, when it is possible to rebuild an existing line, then we must take advantage of it. But we often forget that railway lines were built in the 19th century and that they no longer meet the standards of modern railways (curves, slopes, location in the middle of a built environment). Reconstruction is sometimes much more difficult, very expensive and certainly does not avoid « construction capitalism ». Traffic has to be suspended, the construction sites cause a lot of nuisance for the residents and it takes a lot of time. However, some work is essential if we do not want to see a bridge collapse or a track sagging due to water infiltration.
“The Green Deal without basic infrastructure just won’t work,” said Monika Heiming, executive director of the Brussels-based European Rail Infrastructure Managers lobby group. The EU’s goal is to shift 30 percent of road transport at distances of over 300 kilometers to trains and barges by 2030, and to reach 50 percent by 2050. “Rail is saturated, a modal shift needs to come with capacity, but we don’t have capacity left.” It’s estimated that some €500 billion is needed by 2030 to complete work on the EU’s trans-European networks — mainlines that handle the bulk of cross-border traffic. This TEN-T network was precisely designed not to scatter the money just anywhere and to create rail corridors between the Member States, which would have done nothing without this boost from Europe.
If you want modal shift, you have to take the railway as a whole. In many places, concrete will still have to be poured, for example to protect certain local residents with noise barriers. Smaller stations will need work to bring the platforms up to train level or, for example, to replace information systems. New technical installations will be required in many places. New trains will still have to be built to new standards and new technologies will have to be implemented where this brings added value to railway operations and safety. Thanks to new technologies and data collection, maintenance efforts can be targeted, at a lower cost, and efficiency, safety and reliability are increased. In some cases, it is necessary to build a new line or a new tunnel to obtain more capacity and to distinguish between mainline trains and trains which are needed by the local population.
Railways and public transport without new infrastructure is a utopia. It should never be forgotten that while we dither over a new line or a metro, the other modes of transport continue to advance and pursue an aggressive lobbying policy in their favor. There will be no modal shift without an increase in modernity. After all, those who subscribe to degrowth have the chance to easily put their convictions into practice: no more travelling at all…
16/11/2020 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
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