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image European Research News Centre > Transport > The new battle for the railways
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image image image Date published: 28/08/02
  image The new battle for the railways
RTD info 34
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  Dating back to the industrial revolution, could it be that the railways have no future in a post-industrial age? The dramatic erosion of market share over the past 30 years certainly supports such a suggestion. Yet the railways are the only real means of taking traffic off the roads, thereby making a major contribution to environmental protection. In seeking a rail revival, the European Union is placing the emphasis on harmonisation, the opening up of markets and technological modernisation. The aim is to create a new European rail area.
   
     
   

Too slow, too heavy, too inflexible: the railways seem locked into the rigidities of a bygone age. The European network - such as it is - remains a juxtaposition of 15 separate systems operating within essentially national networks, involving a huge loss of time in recoupling carriages, switching locomotives and replacing crews every time a train crosses a border. The net result of these repeated stops en route is an average speed of 18 km/hr for international freight transport, which is slower than an ice-breaker clearing a passage through the Baltic Sea in winter! Just 8.4% of the EU's freight is carried by rail, compared with 21.1% in the 1970s, while road transport has increased its share from 51% to 72%.

Obsolescence and deficient infrastructures have caused countless bottlenecks in many countries at the expense of the competitiveness of a rail network that is often unable to meet the growing demand for passenger and freight transport. Despite the development of high-speed trains, passenger transport is stagnating. Today the railways meet just 6% of passenger mobility needs globally.

The cost of improving infrastructures is considerable: €4 and €9 billion respectively a year over ten years in Italy and the United Kingdom. In Germany, the Deutsche Bahn invests €8 billion a year in its network, making it the world's biggest rail investor, compared with €3 billion a year for the SNCF/State partnership in France.

Environment and harmonisation

Nevertheless, public authorities have high hopes for the railways that could play a key role in achieving a new balance between modes of transport which is vital to unclogging the roads and reducing pollution. As the Commission explains in its White Paper on transport policy, environmental concerns are central to the debate. In Europe, 28% of carbon dioxide emissions come from transport and the roads alone account for 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions.

To revitalise rail and guarantee its competitiveness, Europe is working on an ambitious plan to 'revolutionise' this mode of transport. The aim is to create an integrated European rail area. To do so will mean overcoming the fundamental obstacle of the lack of interoperability between national rail networks and systems. Everything changes from one country to the next: the electrification and signalling, working conditions, driving and safety regulations ... and even, in some cases, the width of the track.

But harmonisation is coming. After four years of intense activity, the technical specifications for the interoperability of the high-speed rail network will soon enter into force. Technical studies have also been launched for conventional rail transport and a directive is presently under discussion to complete the fundamental principles of interoperability and to develop a common approach to safety. The latter is part of the second package proposed by the Commission in January to accelerate the opening up of rail markets.

A single and competitive network

An initial agreement of crucial importance has already been reached to open up freight transport to competition, first of all - from March 2003 - on a trans-European rail freight network, and then on all lines in 2008. The Union wants to speed up the process and also open up the national rail freight market by 2006. European legislation will thus enable accredited operators to use the rail networks of all Member States for freight transport, under the supervision of an independent body, the European agency for rail safety and interoperability. Propositions will also be formulated to open up the passenger transport market progressively, starting with certain niche markets - night trains, auto trains, etc. - before being extended to all services.


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Major projects for the future

To help draw up Europe's new rail transport map, the Commission has decided to grant some €2.78 billion to 14 priority infrastructure projects for transport by the year 2006, almost two-thirds of them for rail. Major works include building rail links through the Alps and Pyrenees and more high-speed links for passengers. Six projects will tackle bottlenecks and network congestion. The total investment is in the region of €66 billion, funded by the public and private sector at national, regional and Community level.

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The grand total

What is the real cost of transport? This must of course take into account the specific external costs of each mode of transport. It is estimated that every time 85 tonne-kilometres (tkm) of freight switches from road to rail, the external costs are reduced by 50%. On average, the external costs of rail transport are €12.35 per 1 000 tkm compared with €24.12 for road.

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The grand total

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