The Commission’s decision to support 10 pilot projects for a mixture of new cross-border railway passenger services or the enhancement of existing ones is promoted as signalling its support for sustainable mobility. But for some observers, this being more about appearances than substance. As is often the case with public transport matters, ‘the Devil is in the Detail’. The notes accompanying both the invitation to submit bids and the eventual awards reveal that the Commission’s budget has no dedicated funding to support the pilots.

Instead, successful bidders are told that they can use the status of ‘pilot service’ for publicity and communication purposes and that they might also be able to get help in facilitating coordination and contacts, in clarifying compatibility with EU legislation, and in identifying existing or upcoming support tools. In summary: no cash, but possible help in navigating through the policy fog and, clearly, the right to trumpet the award.

The 10 chosen projects (in planned starting date order between now and 2029) are:

  • Hungarian Ministry of Transport, new services connecting Hungary, Austria and Romania;
  • Connection Germany – Denmark – Sweden, with participation of SJ (new night train service Stockholm – Copenhagen – Berlin and day train Hamburg – Gothenburg and, potentially, Oslo, in co-operation with DSB and DB), Snälltaget (enhanced night train service Stockholm – Copenhagen – Berlin), České dráhy (new service Prague – Berlin –Copenhagen, in co-operation with DB and DSB) and Flixtrain (new service Leipzig – Berlin – Copenhagen– Stockholm);
  • Midnight Trains, new night train service Paris – Milan – Venice. Thello, latterly wholly-owned by Trenitalia, offered a night service on this route until 2020;
  • Flixtrain, new service Munich – Zurich;
  • WESTbahn (in whose holding company SNCF has a significant minority share), Munich – Vienna – Budapest, extension of existing service;
  • Nederlandse Spoorwegen, enhancement of the existing Amsterdam – London service, in cooperation with Eurostar (SNCF being the major shareholder). ‘Enhancement’ is defined as being seen from the passenger perspective – for example faster, more frequent, more affordable, or higher quality services, meaning improved ticketing, rolling stock, onboard and on-the-ground services, etc.;
  • European Sleeper, new night train service Amsterdam – Barcelona;
  • Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane /Deutsche Bahn, new services Rome – Munich and Milan – Munich, with a possible extension to Berlin;
  • ILSA (a Trenitalia subsidiary), new services Lisbon – A Coruña and Lisbon – Madrid;
  • Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya, new services connecting Catalonia and the South of France.

Passengers will undoubtedly welcome these new travel options, if they all come to fruition in the absence of Commission funding. But the renaissance of cross-border rail in Europe depends on more than a scattering of well-intentioned pilots.

It is often too difficult for travellers to research and book cross-border journeys with the ease with which it is possible to book air tickets. If the Union is serious about securing a modal shift towards more sustainable travel, the Commission should use its political weight and legislative and financial resources to secure a pan-European booking and ticketing system that is fit for purpose.

CER has developed a comprehensive Ticketing Roadmap which, if delivered, provides the basis for that system. But despite being needed yesterday, it is not scheduled to be delivered in its entirety until 2030. The market has failed prospective passengers and, in so doing, society more widely. There is a strong ‘public good’ case for the European institutions to enable its delivery much sooner in the name of modal shift.

One impediment has been the fragmentation of the railway sector with big incumbent players seeking to protect their historic investments in unique ticketing systems, intent on maintaining their dominance in their particular corner of the market. Over-dependence on the certainties of neo-liberal economic theory with unyielding interpretation of competition acquis, have combined to over-ride the needs of passengers for the collaboration that is essential to a functioning network.

Railway undertakings’ fear of competition law has played its part in the decline of cross-border passenger rail. The prospect of new services is enticing, but how much better if they dove-tailed with what exists already rather than emerged here or there, like pop-up shops.

Public transport is at its best when it can flourish as a network of networks and when passengers can travel, relaxed in the certainty that whatever the disruption, they will always reach their destination at the earliest convenient opportunity at no additional cost, whoever the operator and whichever the ticket that they hold. It is the benefit of the wider network which provides passengers with real choice and which, assured they will reach their destination, will underpin the renaissance of sustainable cross-border travel.

Christopher Irwin