Trains will run faster on key routes across Europe and ticket prices and provider costs could be slashed under a Brussels plan to boost faltering efforts to make rail Europe’s default mode of transport.
A new speed requirement to ensure trains on a core network of track are able to travel at 160 km/h or faster would be introduced by 2040, the European Commission has proposed.
Cross-border travel, including by night trains, would be encouraged by making ticketing easier and potentially through cutting the track access charges faced by rail companies.
The commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, who presented the proposals for the bloc’s 27 member states to agree, said the EU’s executive would also look at introducing a VAT exemption for rail tickets.
Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, said: “We will speed up travel times and make it easier to build a competitive rail network across Europe. Next year work will start on 15 pilots to improve long-distance rail services across main train corridors – train tickets need to be easier to find, to book and buy at attractive prices. In this context we will also look at a VAT exemption for international rail tickets.”
The commission has long spoken about revolutionising European rail travel. The EU has set a target of doubling high-speed rail traffic by 2030, and tripling it by 2050, in an attempt to cut carbon emissions from transport by 90% within the next three decades. But experts say cross-border routes remain expensive and unnecessarily slow.
The EU is expected to miss its target of having 31,000km of high-speed rail track in operation in the next eight years. National governments, not the commission, decide on high-speed rail projects and despite the EuropeanCentral Bank (ECB) having provided significant levels of lending, Brussels has struggled to encourage investment in cross-border travel.
For long-distance freight rail, trains are often stuck at borders due to inefficient rail safety checks. A 2018 report on EU high-speed rail by the European court of auditors described “a patchwork of national lines built by member states in isolation, without proper coordination across borders”.
High track access charges and the takeoff of low-cost flights have long been cited as reasons for the decline of night trains in Europe.
When national railway companies owned the rail infrastructure as well as the trains, deals were done between those operating in different countries to keep track access charges low. When management of the railways was separated off, those charges became revenue earners and the previously mutually helpful deals to ease international travel fell away.
The commission has proposed that it will issue guidelines in 2023 on the setting of charges in order to boost affordable cross-border travel. The ECB is also launching a lending programme for rail companies who wish to purchase rolling stock.
Herwig Schuster, a transport expert at Greenpeace, said: “It’s essential that the EU makes travelling by train easier, faster and more affordable – helping people to take the climate-friendly option and fly less. The commission’s plan includes some really great ideas to better support rail; we now need to see the follow-through.
“The EU and national governments have for too long prioritised dirty road and aviation projects – they must stop paying polluters and start funding transport that works for people and doesn’t wreck the climate.”