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European Railways: Can the Train Take the Strain?

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

The heatwave in the summer of 2022 is unlikely to be forgotten quickly; either that or such temperatures will become the norm and the notoriety of this particular year will be reduced, as was suggested by the chief meteorologist at the Met Office [1]. With Temperatures reaching over 40°c in the UK, and a similar experience in the rest of Europe, if not worse in some countries [2], the heatwave proved to have a particularly detrimental effect on the railways. Some services in Spain were halted as a result of the heat as wildfires came close to the tracks near Madrid. Furthermore, a train in the Basque country derailed, with indications that this resulted from the high temperatures [3]. Train cancellations also proved common. In the UK, the LNER line suspended some trains, as well as advising customers not to travel more widely. In Belgium too, the SNCB company cancelled over 30 trains in a preventative measure to ensure the services were safe [4]. The effects of the heat on the train tracks were perhaps more pronounced in the UK than in other countries as during construction tracks are pre-stressed to generally lower temperatures, unlike Southern European countries where hotter temperatures are more common. Therefore, as a result of the heat, speed restrictions had to be introduced in order to help prevent the tracks from buckling, as well as it is problematic for overhead wires [5]. The heatwave has certainly demonstrated the need for improvement to railway infrastructure across Europe, futureproofing these should such extreme temperatures persist throughout forthcoming summers.

The background to this is attributed to global warming and its link to CO2 emissions, not that the railways themselves are an especially large contributor to such emissions when compared to other forms of transport like aircraft and cars. This likely makes them a more popular mode of transport, especially on shorter journeys, as environmental considerations have certainly become a more popular view. A survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers in July 2021 suggested that 50% of those surveyed globally felt they had become more eco-friendly over the preceding six months [6]. Although, this generally focused on their purchasing habits, it would inevitably reflect attitudes more widely (see end notes on cost, emissions, and time which considers the statistics behind the general themes of this essay). However, there are certainly considerations as to how much of an impact replacing short-distance flights with train journeys would actually have, likely decreasing transport emissions by just 0.5%, with flights less than 1,500km accounting for only 3% of the EU’s transport emissions in 2019 [7]. The role of the COVID-19 pandemic within this during 2020 and 2021 is important too with ‘Working from Home’ attitudes transforming into ‘Working from Anywhere’. As 2022 has been notable for disruption to travel, the rediscovery of the train may be considered almost inevitable with its gentler pace compared to planes [8], and, for a standard ticket, a more pleasant travelling experience compared to the ‘no frills’ approach of budget airlines. In tandem with the consequences of the pandemic, there is an impression of a transformation in attitudes internationally with regard to travel. This was demonstrated in reluctant support for the announcement in August 2022 that American Airlines had ordered ‘Boom’ Supersonic jets [9], following a purchase of these by United Airlines in 2021 [10], promising to shorten flight times, something that could be expected to have a far more obvious base of public support. In an era where the demand for things to happen instantly has become the norm, the possible resurgence of global train travel may come as something of a surprise and reflects the need for train services to appeal to a wider audience and appear a more commonplace form of long-distance travel again.

There are indications of the railway industry changing dramatically, especially as efforts to modernise Europe’s train fleet have been underway for some time. In early September 2022 the Austrian ÖBB NightJet released images of the new interiors of its sleeping cabins, designed to increase privacy and safety, with intentions of this new fleet being fully rolled out by 2025 [11]. The level of comfort being introduced stands in stark contrast to air travel, especially budget airlines, notorious for designs which favour maximum capacity over customer comfort, reflecting a potential effort on behalf of international railway companies to promote rail to travellers who do not need to prioritise speed over other considerations.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the use of online meetings across various platforms, and this has persisted due to its convenience despite restrictions being lifted. For many jobs, the need to travel internationally was important, but this has reduced and the demand for quick, cheap flights across Europe has diminished accordingly. The peak era of budget flights was perhaps best represented by the closure of night trains across Europe, such as some Elipsos services in December 2012 (Barcelona to Zurich and Barcelona to Milan), and that between Rome and Paris a year later in 2013. Deutsche Bahn gradually closed its night services in 2014, fully discontinuing these by 2016, selling its carriages to the Austrian ÖBB [12]. These closures coincided with the rise of budget airlines and their bargain prices [13], but as indicated by the boss of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, the ‘era of the €10 ticket is over’, with average prices of the airline expected to gradually increase, although he anticipated people would continue to use planes [14]. If people are travelling less for work (reducing some of the need for fast travel), combined with higher ticket prices, the overall appeal of flying certainly diminishes, especially if the alternatives appear practical, cost-effective, and more comfortable.

High-speed rail offers a potential solution for train operators seeking to make trains appear a more reasonable long-distance alternative to other methods of transportation. The French TGV trains which opened in 1981 between Paris and Lyon (244 miles), halved the amount of time this journey takes to 2 hours and 40 minutes [15], a journey that is now even faster. In 1993 it was noted that the TGV had been more successful than expected with great demand, and therefore similar routes were established in Spain (AVE) and Germany (ICE) [16], also influenced by the success of the Shinkansen (the bullet train as it is better known) in Japan. The popularity of these high-speed services is reflected in the approximate 600 billion passenger-kilometres which were travelled every year prior to the pandemic. Interestingly, two in every three of these tracks are in China, which has constructed over 41,000 km in nearly a decade [17] reflecting interest in, and the importance of, developing this kind of passenger infrastructure. Ideas of speeding up the entire network are catching on across Europe as the European Commission has proposed a new minimum speed requirement of 160 km/h for trains on a core network to be introduced by 2040 [18]. As was highlighted by ‘Greenpeace’, the campaign network largely focused on environmental concerns, in 2021, only 51 (34%) of the 150 busiest flight routes in the EU can be made by train in under six hours [19], a clear indication that the need for improvements and development of high-speed rail alternatives in necessary in order to pose a genuine alternative to aviation, Even more, futuristic proposals have been made, like the ‘Zeleros Hyperloop’, designed in Spain, offering a fully electric solution to intercity travel with high capacity (50-200 passengers), travelling at a maximum speed of 1,000 km/h, with carriage-like capsules inside a low-pressure tube [20]. Regardless of its theoretical attraction, in reality, more effective improvements to what already exists, rather than constructing entirely new systems, are more probable. The construction of high-speed lines is a complex issue due to the requirement of the trains to manage curves and steep and irregular gradients. Creating a Europe-wide high-speed system across nations with varying resources would be difficult. The potential costs of a new system can be seen on a modest scale in the UK with the HS2 project. This also demonstrates the lengthy process of line construction, so the use of existing infrastructure would make a relatively fast system attainable more quickly. For nations with minimal resources to back an expensive project, older ‘tilting trains’ would have to be used instead [21]. However, it was suggested in 2017 that European stakeholders were also investing in improving the rail system’s energy efficiency and energy management. This included improving the designs of traditional electrification systems, using better lightweight materials, improving training for drivers, and better brake energy recovery [22]. This is a reflection of the situation within individual nations, but with regard to transborder connections, ideas of interoperability are of seemingly increased importance. Whilst unity in systems may be more desirable, disparity seems to be the reality of construction. According to the UK Department for Transport:

“Interoperability supports rail safety and t