Let’s go behind the scenes of the European Year of Rail and see what’s been going on.
March 2020 will be remembered for many reasons in Europe, but it was also the date that I tabled a proposal to make 2021 the European Year of Rail. A lot has changed since then, and as I write, we are in month nine of the initiative. This seems a good time to take stock!
Let’s start at the beginning: by putting the spotlight on rail, we wanted to highlight the crucial role it plays for us all, and its many benefits. Rail is one of the most sustainable and safest transport modes, and it has a strong European dimension – connecting people and businesses.
We need to raise awareness of these advantages to see more people travelling by train, more businesses shipping their goods via rail, and more people considering a career in the rail industry. Rail is also an ally in European efforts to reduce transport emissions. Today, trains carry 8% of all passengers and 18% of our goods transported by land, but is only responsible for 0.4% of all transport greenhouse gas emissions.
There are many positives to using rail, but we must also draw attention to the barriers holding rail back from realizing its full potential. For example, we need to improve long-distance and cross-border connections. We will use this year to create momentum for this, and for high quality infrastructure capacity. It is however important that this momentum lasts beyond 2021, so we need the entire rail community, policy-makers and public authorities to match words with deeds.
Rail and other more sustainable modes also need to become more affordable. We remain committed to the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘user pays’ principles, aligning the cost of using transport with its societal costs, including emissions and noise pollution.
Looking forward, it is a good sign that many new train connections and services have been launched or announced this year, promising more choice and travel options for passengers. The new night train linking Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin is just one example.
Alongside policy proposals, we continue to invest in innovation, for which I have huge respect.
Innovation has already increased speed, safety, efficiency and comfort while making it easier to plan journeys. This year will see the launch of Europe’s Rail, a research partnership continuing the important work begun by the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking, pooling and coordinating research and innovation at EU level to help us solve our known challenges, and probably others that we didn’t even realise we had!
By the time you read this, the Connecting Europe Express, one of the year’s highlights, will have begun its 26-country tour of Europe. This unique train has certainly opened my eyes to the challenges linked to pan-European rail: having a train travel through so many countries is a complex undertaking that requires cooperation between numerous actors and technical problem-solving. This project is a clear reminder that we still have work to do on our way to a true Single European Railway Area and why it is truly worth the effort. I am often asked why we chose 2021 to showcase rail. Actually it was a natural choice following the launch of our Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy in December 2020, which itself built on the European Green Deal. The Strategy presents tangible plans to overcome the challenges I referred to, with concrete milestones, such as tripling high-speed rail traffic and doubling rail freight traffic across Europe by 2050.
It has not been the easiest of years to bring people together, but I am pleased with what we have achieved to date. In fact, one of my early conclusions is that rail is very resilient. We saw this during the early days of the pandemic, and we are still seeing this today – trains continue to keep us moving, and they continue to transport the goods on which we rely.
The timing also allows us to restore trust in public transport in the wake of the pandemic. Please join us by becoming ambassadors for rail! Do this within professional networks, and with friends and family. Let’s all choose train travel and encourage others to do the same.