Although it is barely mentioned in the European “Strategy for Sustainable and Smart Mobility”, regional and suburban rail transportation remains one of the best assets for achieving our climate objectives. The European Union has important levers for action in terms of investment in rail networks and guarantees of transparent and fair competition.
Regional and suburban rail lines carry 90% of rail passengers in Europe. In terms of passenger numbers, this is 10 times more than air transportation or long-distance rail. In Germany, regional train lines carried 2.2 billion passengers in 2019 compared to 151 million for long-distance rail. Yet, this daily mobility remains the great absentee of the “European Strategy for Sustainable and Smart Mobility”, presented last December by the Commission.
Achieving the ambitious climate objectives of the European Green Deal requires a drastic shift in European action and funding toward this daily mobility. The European Year of Rail, which kicks off on March 29 in Lisbon, must be an opportunity to promote these regional and suburban lines, which are essential from an economic, social and environmental perspective. It is urgent to consider how to strengthen these services and turn them into real and credible alternatives to the private car.
The European Union must invest more in these daily connections
Rail’s potential to reduce our GHG emissions is well-known: it is responsible for less than 0.5% of total emissions from the transportation sector . The private car, as the preferred mode for our daily trips, is responsible for the vast majority of these emissions and its modal share has not decreased in 30 years. To increase the modal shift to rail, it is urgent to continue investing in rail networks.
The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), the main infrastructure financing tool, is set to allocate 25 billion euros to transportation infrastructure between 2021 and 2027. It will thus contribute to the sector’s eco-friendly transition. However, this mechanism has too often given priority to high-speed train projects and cross-border links.
While it is legitimate for European institutions to ensure better interconnection between member states, a rebalancing of investments in favor of regional and suburban connections is necessary, given the imperatives of reversing the emissions curve of the transportation sector. The sanitary crisis must allow Europe to shake up and revise its financial policies. The European Union would also gain new legitimacy by responding to the daily mobility needs of European citizens. Modal shift will be essential to achieving the climate objectives. These investments in regional and suburban networks will make it possible to increase the offer, frequency and quality of services. These are the key elements in developing the attractiveness of rail compared to the private car.
Ensuring transparent and fair competition between operators: a lever for rail competitiveness
This rebalancing of investments by the European Union and the Member States must be accompanied by a strict enforcement of European regulations in order to guarantee a controlled and fair opening of regional rail competition.
In all countries where it has been properly applied, competition has enabled local public rail services to enter a virtuous circle: an increase in supply (+22% in Germany), savings for local authorities (while the French regions’ contributions to regional trains increased by 92% between 2002 and 2018, they fell by 34% for the German Länder), an increase in ridership, and the re-opening of lines.
At a time when the sanitary crisis suggests a massive use of cars at the expense of public transportation, it is time to give rail transportation the means to match our climate ambition. Access to rolling stock for all rail operators, independence of the rail infrastructure authority, an end to direct awards for transparent tenders focused on innovation and environmental performance: these are the main milestones of this fair and regulated competitive framework. COVID-19 must not be a substitute for a return to monopolistic practices that undermine the rail industry and its attractiveness.
The urgency of the climate change situation requires urgent action: the European Union can no longer be satisfied with only investing in cross-border and long-distance rail.
It is time to place daily mobility of European citizens at the heart of the European strategy for decarbonizing mobility.