The good news about rail

Railways were already set for a renaissance this year as the transport of choice for eco-conscious travellers and freighters. The climate crisis has changed people’s relationship with mobility, shifting them away from driving – not only for their emissions but because of the frustration of sitting in congested traffic. Coronavirus could give it even more of a boost.

The Year of Rail

The European Union wants trains to be the poster child for its Green Deal for Europe environmental agenda. In June, EU governments agreed that 2021 should be the ‘European Year of Rail’, which will feature a range of events and campaigns to attract more people and goods to trains.

The Year of Rail aims to not only encourage the use of trains but increase the capacity of rail infrastructure, support passenger rights and promote through-ticketing. It ties in with the EU’s Fourth Railway Package, which effectively creates a single market for rail, giving operators more freedom to provide services across different member states: this should spur competition, boosting the number of trains running and reducing ticket prices.

More and more resources are being directed towards rail: governments are finally stumping up the billions needed to handle the extra traffic. Rail is prioritised in the EU’s pandemic recovery package, with extra aid to boost high-speed services and support night-trains if they displace air routes. Air France’s government bailout includes the condition that it no longer compete with rail on certain routes.

An attractive alternative

Germany has launched a €86 billion plan to modernize and expand its creaking railway system. Building is set to start on a vast €15 billion railway tunnel under the Baltic Sea to connect Finland and Estonia. On June, 24 European countries agreed to work together on international rail transport and make it “an attractive alternative” over distances where it is currently not competitive.

So how does coronavirus change the equation? There is little settled conventional wisdom about the eventual consequences of Covid-19, which has so shaken our world.

When it comes to transport, the initial indications were that lockdowns and work-from-home orders would diminish the overall personal mobility – at least for commuting and for work-related trips.

That trend appears to be confirmed: a recent report from the UBS bank says the pandemic could speed the shift of passengers from air to rail. Planes are grounded and airlines are struggling to survive, while rail market conditions are improving and attitudes to trains are changing, it says.

Saving 5 million tonnes in carbon emissions

The UBS Evidence Lab report, ‘By train or by plane?’ says, “liberalisation should improve frequency and affordability. 2019 and 2020 mark the inflexion point for the industry.” It predicts rail will grow 10% every year this decade, while there will be approximately 800 more high-speed trains in operation in Europe. If the shift to rail from flying and driving continues, UBS says this could save as much as five million tonnes in carbon emissions during the next ten years.

There is still much to be done to improve rail, notably by resolving cross-border problems for infrastructure, services and timetables. Despite carrying 17% of the EU’s freight and 8% of passengers, railways account for only 3% of the bloc’s transport emissions (road transport is responsible for more than 70%). But like trains themselves, the shift towards bigger and better rail – though slow to start – is finally generating momentum.