Why rail is back in favour

Earlier this year, a European Commission report was released that confirmed what anyone who has taken a train recently will have noticed: the rail market is growing.

The Commission’s Sixth Rail Market Monitoring Report (RMMS) showed that EU passenger traffic grew by a steady 1.7% a year between 2009 and 2016, reaching 450 billion passenger-km (out of around six trillion passenger-km of land transport overall).

European rail is transporting some 1.6 billion tonnes of freight and 9 billion passengers each year. “Rail transport is critical to the EU strategy for a more sustainable transport sector, economic and social cohesion and connecting Europeans within and between member states,” the report said.

Rail freight has not grown as fast. From its 2011 peak of a 19% share of the EU land freight market, it fell to 17% in 2016, while road’s share rose from 75% to 76%. But around half of total rail freight is cross-border. “This lends rail freight a strong European dimension and makes it even more sensitive to a lack of interoperability and cooperation between national rail networks that can affect its competitiveness,” the report said.

The reason for the return of rail is obvious. Combatting climate change has surged to the top of the political agenda, and rail is one of the cleanest ways to travel (arguably, only walking and cycling are cleaner). Decisionmakers seeking to cut transport emissions are subtly giving shippers and travellers new reasons to switch to rail.

A sector that had long been starved is now lavished with investment. The report itself says Europe’s high-speed network is now more than 8,400 line-km, more than doubling in length between 2003 and 2017. An ambitious plan to build a vast railway tunnel under the Baltic Sea to connect Finland and Estonia looks set to go ahead after it secured €15 billion in funding. In April, the Commission announced €776 million in EU aid for rail projects in Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Romania.

Commuters are returning too, as they start to appreciate the simple joy of a calm journey in which the landscape flashes by. It marks a contrast with driving, which can easily be stressful, especially when roads are congested.

The report itself points to how rail can help to reduce transport emissions. While it only accounts for 2% of total EU energy consumption in transport, rail carried 11.2% of freight and 6.6% of passengers of all transport modes in 2016. It is also the only mode to have almost continuously cut CO2emissions since 1990: by 2016, it represented only 0.5% of overall transport CO2emissions.

But rail cannot return just through investment. The sector needs to adapt to today’s needs. The Commission report notes that rail competitors – alternative operators to national incumbents – grew in most EU countries in the period until 2016. Open access freight operators competing with national incumbents were active in all countries except Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Luxembourg – and in half of EU member states, the market share of competitors was more than 40%. It is slightly less in passenger markets, where only half of member states have competitors operating.

And just last year, the EU confirmed new rules to strengthen passenger rights across the EU, including higher compensation in case of delays and more assistance for people with disabilities

All this shows how the rail sector is changing. It is unlikely to ever return to its peak of over a century ago, before the age of the automobile. But it will take its rightful place back in the mobility mix.