What have you done with the railways in recent decades?

04/06/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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On March 29, Pedro Nuno Santos the Minister for Infrastructure and Housing of Portugal and Adina Vălean the European Commissioner for Transport have officially kicked-off the European Year of Rail. ‘The modal shift towards rail is the key to transform the transport sector and to reduce the impact on the environment,’ Pedro Nuno Santos said. Far from wanting to glamorize railways, the Minister nevertheless insisted that over the last thirty years there has been ‘stagnation in the growth of rail freight and residual growth in passenger transport. We need to understand the reasons for this. It is very clear to us that lack of investment is one of the main reasons for this failure.‘ The Portuguese minister, who is a left politician, seemed to question the policy followed so far by the European Union: ‘Regardless of one’s opinion and ideological position, it is an indisputable fact that liberalisation has not succeeded so far in increasing the modal share of the railways.’ In particular, he wanted to point out that ‘the market was not the answer to everything’ and that ‘the so-called ‘inefficient’ public operators allowed the Trans Europ Express and the high-speed train.’ Not very true about the Trans-Europ-Express, a concept of first class trains with a supplement, which were stopped in 1987 by the public railway companies… at a time when there was no liberalisation! What did the public authorities do to prevent this? Portugal has never joined the TEE concept and Spain has been content with the Catalan-Talgo. It was a rather meagre record…

For our part, if we can agree with some of the minister’s observations, we would prefer to see less communication and more relevant analyses. Market shares remain desperately low? We know very well why. But for that, we must dare to scratch the ground rather than just mow the lawn…

A national story
It is always interesting to hear the great speeches about Europe without borders, but we see that it is still necessary to remember how our railways functioned when they were state administrations. The history of the railways is above all a social and national story. Each country built its own railway administration, which meant that the staff only worked and designed the railway within the strict national territory. When other countries were mentioned, the answer was always the same: ‘They are them. We are us’. An organization such as the UIC was needed so that two administrations could « officially » talk to each other and coordinate international trains. Locomotives were changed at the borders for a variety of reasons, but generally each country did not like to have an engine built by a competing industry running on « its » territory. In 1954, when Den Hollander proposed a single rolling stock for the famous Trans-Europ-Express, that was categorically refused by administrations and ministries, who feared interference. This is the reason that there were never any Alstom locomotives in Germany and any Krupp/Siemens/AEG engines in France (few exceptions were for example SNCB’s Class 15, 16 and 18 or SBB RAe TEE trainset, but that’s remain not representative). Until the 1960s and 1970s, the state’s ideology was the unique source of inspiration for the railways. International traffic was a world apart. The UIC succeeded in standardising the easiest things, i.e. freight wagons and passenger carriages. But everything else was a matter of national pride and the pride of the engineering corps and national industry.

In 1975, an attempt to produce 3,000 international air-conditioned cars, built by several manufacturers, resulted in barely 500 vehicles being put into service! Deutsche Bahn and SNCF opted instead for a coach car produced by their own design office. The Austrians and Italians did not want the « coach style ». The Germans wanted hourly intercity trains, while France preferred fewer but heavier trains. The Eurocity concept of 1987 – standardised and air-conditioned trains with a dining car -, did not please some countries either, as they saw it as too « German ». Later, the arrival of high-speed rail was immediately associated with national pride and industrial champions, greatly encouraged by the public authorities. Today, the ÖBB Nightjet concept is considered by some operators as « too luxurious », especially regarding the sleeping cars, which require special high-level operation.

Nor did anyone see the major legislative changes of the 1990s. To avoid a waste of subsidiation, national governments relied on Europe to force the railways to operate international trains on a contractual basis. The result was that operators had to pay tolls to run on the neighbouring network and make these trains profitable. This was the main reason for the gradual disappearance of night trains. Another example is the huge Spanish high-speed network. It is sometimes so little used that once again the public authorities have ordered to find solutions to relieve its deficit. The answer was… more competition to attract more operators and fill the coffers of the infrastructure manager. Italy was able to demonstrate that this policy worked. But in Germany, we always talk about the railway as a single company… In Spain and Portugal, night trains stopped for good in 2020. The sad episode concerning Eurostar does not show us much optimism!

This quick history allows us to ask the Portuguese minister: « what has the famous public authorities done in the last decades? » In reality, responsibilities are shared by several parties.

The real reasons
The loopholes are known, but not much is said about them, for example with regard to the tracks. Seeing that the infrastructure was swallowing up an astronomical amount of money, the railways were forced to work around the problem for decades by focusing on the trains, rather than the track. But there comes a point when you quickly reach the limits of this policy. When networks – thanks to liberalisation – were analysed as a full sector, what a surprise was for our politicians to see how much the railway infrastructure had been so neglected! In the UK, franchise agreements have gone awry because promises about the network were never kept (tilting trains on the WCML, electrification,…). Germany found itself having to manage 800 construction sites at the same time. Moreover, thanks to the law, any citizen can to make a complaint to stop any construction work, even though it is essential for rail mobility. Who is responsible for this? The public authorities. If you base investments on an electoral horizon and the injunctions of the Ministry of Finance, you provides a neglected railway. If the Portuguese minister is talking about « loopholes », this is perhaps here to look…

While rail was struggling to maintain its position, road and air transport made great progress. All past governments have allowed – and even encouraged – this evolution. Rail is no longer the dominant transport mode and is no longer the first choice of citizens and industry. Attempts were made to breathe new life into the rail system by allowing other operators to enter. In fact, this liberalization has mainly been a wonderful opportunity for states to disengage from « a very costly heavy sector » and to mobilize private financial resources. This is largely what has happened! As we saw at the last RailTech21, Europe has not to target to force but to encourage a change in the current situation. It preferred to rely on industrial know-how rather than opt for political forcing. This was the case when six major suppliers came together in Unisys in the 1990s to produce a new signalling and traffic management system, which is now called ERTMS/ETCS. The universal TRAXX (Bombardier) and Vectron (Siemens) locomotives are the result of several years of testing, not by the public authorities, but by the persistence of industry. The opening of borders allows these industries to no longer be held hostage by national orders and to sell throughout Europe. This liberalisation has thus allowed new ideas to emerge (hydrogen or battery-powered trains) and to maintain factories and jobs.

Of course, the industry benefits indirectly from public power through the many research programmes and universities. This is where we find the essential role of the State: to provide a direction and encourage new perspectives. This is the case, for example, with the hydrogen sector, which has encouraged Alstom to develop and test its trains in Germany. There are also a lot of other state-funded research programs from which the railway sector benefits. Let’s think of digital technology or research into new materials.

Despite this revival, rail’s market share has not really been growing. Why? Because the car has become an inescapable part of people’s lives and has continued to grow inexorably. Even those who take the train every day have a car for other private activities. Industrialists have built their logistic flows based on the flexibility of trucks, at the cost of enormous pollution. The railways have very little room for maneuver to respond to such societal phenomena. Allowing warehouses to be built near motorways does not help the railways. Yet it is the public authorities that provide building permits…

On the other hand, the single European ticket is made difficult by the great differences in the APIs (Application Programming Interface) used to build the digital ticketing system. Most operators have a regional focus and receive national subsidies and government targets. They do not have a mission to develop an international app. Each operator chooses the most suitable API, which costs the least. Fares are subject to many social exceptions specific to each country’s political culture. The Dutch OV-chipkaart or the London Oyster Card are not international: they must be acquired on the operator’s app, which not easy to find. Moreover, digital pricing is above all about valuable data. Everyone know that who is holding the data has a lot of power. In this context, nobody wants to share data and everyone wants to become a future GAFA…

What should be done?
As the railways are heavily subsidized by national taxpayers, it is clear that the railways will remain a national story, a ‘political thing’. No country wants to pay for its neighbor. Operators will have to agree between themselves on contractual bases and justify their international choices. They can also go it alone, as the ÖBB did with the Nightjets.

Increasing market share is not just a question of technology or public power. It is also a question of service. It is essential to convince the undecided, those who never use the train. It is also necessary to reduce the procedures that paralyze rail and make the entry ticket so expensive. We need to build a traffic management system that can calculate which train will arrive first. Goods trains are sometimes faster than local trains. They must therefore be given priority, without altering the punctuality targets of passenger traffic.

Increasing the market share of rail does not require an ideological conflict between more or less state, but rather a mental shift in the sector and an investment strategy that does not take into account the electoral calendar, but climate targets for the next 30 years. Are transport ministers ready for this?

15/11/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
Suscribe my blog

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