The post-Covid utopia: Paris-Berlin in four hours…

It is well known that great crises give rise to great utopias. The EU’s Covid-19 economic stimulus package could be used to fund a high-speed rail network across Europe, according to the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.

The EU’s €2 trillion recovery package for economies blighted by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown aims to avoid a damaging and long-lasting recession. According the website Deutsche Welle, the Commission will raise money on the financial markets. It is to be repaid over decades, from 2028 until 2058 at the latest. The move would require the approval of all EU member states. But the most important thing is what we could do with all that money.

A report from the Vienna Institute for Economic Studies has looked at ways of spending the fund to get the most out of it and is proposing a series of massive infrastructure projects including energy and health, but also a European network of high-speed trains…(1)

If we go back over the history of the European Union’s infrastructure policy, from the mid1980s onward, the European Union developed an EU transport policy, based on the idea on extending the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) as a planned network of roads, railways, airports and water infrastructure in the EU. Subsequently the emphasis shifted to opening up transport markets, including by establishing a common framework for charging for transport services. More recently the greening of transport became a declared goal, explains the Institute.

The goal of the Vienna Institute’s rail network is very clear: to reduce long distances below the four-hour travel time, which is favorable to the train. The goal is cutting by around half the EU’s domestic air passenger operations has the potential to reduce global commercial aviation CO2 emissions by about 4-5 percent. The vast majority of major railway lines allows only a speed of (far) below 200 km/h, cross-border travel is also hampered by a number of technical differences and interoperability is also hindered by the fragmentation of national railway companies with their different standards of operation, says the document.

To rise above it all, the Institute proposes his idea of the Ultra-Rapid-Train, URT. This technology should be superior to current high-speed trains if the 1,100 kilometres between Paris and Berlin are to be completed in four hours. TGV technology or magnetic levitation? It is not mentioned in the report. The URT network should be a new double-track high-speed railway system that is complementary to the existing networks. However, where suitable, also existing lines could be adapted. An average speed in the range of 250–350 km/h should be achieved. This would allow passengers to halve the current rail travel times, for instance, from Paris to Berlin to about four hours, making air travel for a large part of the intra-European passenger transport obsolete, says the Institute.

A fully fledged URT network might consist of four major railway lines, connecting all the capital cities of the EU. Equally it connects many of Europe’s key economic powerhouses, but also less developed regions, such as the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy), stated the report. The network could connect all Europeans regions as well as potentially halving current journey times between northern and southern cities.

The plan proposes four lines:

1. Paris to Dublin – from Paris to Brest, taking the Brest-Cork ferry then running from Cork to Dublin. The report describes this route as ‘taking on an additional significance in the context of Brexit’.

2. Lisbon to Helsinki – running from Lisbon through Spain and France, via Paris, then to Belgium and the Netherlands before splitting into a loop via Berlin and onwards to Helsinki.

3. Brussels to Valetta – through Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy before taking the ferry to Malta

4. Berlin to Nicosia – with a ferry-based sea link between Piraeus and Paphos and a loop between Vienna and Sofia.

According the Vienna Institute, the construction of the URT – system achieves several goals simultaneously, like to represent a pan-European activity to foster European integration and cohesion, to constitute a lighthouse project in support of the European Green Deal’s aim or also to create another European champion in the transport industry in line with the 2019 Franco-German Manifesto for a European industrial policy fit for the 21st Century.

This recovery plan bears a strong resemblance to the major works of the time Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1994. In January 1989, during a visit to Bulgaria, French President François Mitterrand evasively declared « that a TGV would one day link Sofia ».

The archives of the 1990s are full of lavish plans for pan-European high-speed networks, intended to integrate Europe into a single railway territory. There were plans for a unified TGV, a kind of European rail airbus, but many didn’t measure the legendary rivalry between Siemens’ Germany and Alstom’s France. Only the Benelux network and the HS1 line to London were linked to the French network, which made it seem as this time Europe was on the way to high speed. The 2000s and the arrival of a new business model in aviation have put the great railway dreams in the cupboard.

Currently, high speed rail no longer seems to be a dream and only a few utopians are trying other technologies, such as Hyperloop. If the current major TEN-T projects could already be completed, the railways would be a great winner.

That said, this document from the Vienna Institute preferred the train to the plane for long distances. That is in and of itself a big progress…

(1) 2020 – The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies  – How to Spend it: A Proposal for a European Covid-19 Recovery Programme