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European Railways: Can the Train Take the Strain?

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 technical compatibility between trains and

infrastructure, and it also enables the railway to compete more effectively with other forms of transport. It establishes common standards and assessment processes for new, upgraded or renewed rail vehicles, infrastructure and components [23]”.


This certainly reflects efforts by the European Union to begin to unify its railway system, with directives aimed at this in 1996 and 2001, as well as social harmonisation directives published in 2005 and 2007 [24]. However, whilst 2021 may have been the EU’s ‘Year of Rail’, this was not without its failures. The ‘Connecting Europe Express’ made a 20,000km journey over 36 days, but at almost all 26 national borders crossed, the train completely stopped, with 55 different locomotives used to pull the carriages due to differences between countries [25]. These differences stem from inconsistencies across Europe’s rail network, with the locomotive for the ‘Connecting Europe Express’ having to adapt to different gauges: a main European one, another for the Iberian Peninsula, and a third for many Baltic (or post-Soviet) countries [26]. In May 2022, it was announced that Ukraine would begin to gradually switch to the European standard gauge, initially linking cities, but expanding further throughout the country after this [27]. Although with the ongoing war, it is unclear how or when this will develop, and it seems likely that other countries closely affected by the conflict between Ukraine and Russia may also change too, prompted by security concerns.


The situation for rail electrification is even more complex, as differing voltages have historically been used on national networks meaning an international train has to be able to adapt to a range of traction currents [28], a consequence of the nationalistic approach to railway networks. With many countries seemingly unwilling to compromise on this issue, true interoperability appeared a distant reality, although there are signs that this situation may be changing. The Rail Baltica project seems to represent an effort to integrate national systems within the wider European rail network. This will initially connect Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to Poland, as well as providing night train services to Vienna and Berlin from Tallinn, and a separate one from Vilnius. As this project also sees the construction of freight rail routes connecting to Helsinki in Finland [29], it seems probable that passenger services will extend there in the future.


Interoperability also needs to take into consideration other aspects of the user experience. A common failure is the complexity of purchasing tickets, a problem that is both national and international. Many rail companies refuse to share their data meaning more popular general booking sites such as TrainLine and RailEurope cannot offer a full booking service [30]. It is undeniable that in almost all circumstances it is easier to purchase a ticket for a flight than for a cross-border train trip. Different companies operating different parts of the route require separate bookings. Night trains, such as those run by the Austrian ÖBB NightJet offer some form of a solution as these tickets allow for long-distance journeys to be booked with more ease, such as Paris to Vienna or Zürich to Berlin [31]. But for most journeys, there are a variety of train operators using a variety of websites or apps, often in different languages, compared to websites available for purchasing flights which essentially display all available options from a range of providers. This stems from the contrast between passengers’ rights for railways compared to aviation. The EU has had difficulty in getting railways to adopt these new rights as they were blocked by the EU Council which felt there was no obligation on open ticketing data, and the final resolution reached encourages this through contracts, but does not have to be enforced until 2030 if it is not feasible [32].


Even within individual countries, railways suffer as a result of diverse ownership. In the UK this is obvious from the number of different train operators (28 of these being of particular significance [33]), and many of them are owned by foreign investment companies often controlled by foreign governments. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) former General Secretary, Mick Cash, commented that this should be considered “a national scandal”, and that “profits from [UK] fares- amongst the highest in Europe- subsidising operations abroad [34]”, an unfortunate consequence of privatisation which had been introduced with the intention of lowering ticket costs due to increased competition. However, this issue is not unique to the UK, for even across Europe wider privatisation has become policy. For example, in 2016 the EU Fourth Railway Package encouraged privatisation as it proposed “to open up each country’s rail network to competition and ultimately create a single European market in rail services [35]”. It is worth noting that representatives of railway companies SNCF and Deutsche Bahn lobbied against this, citing the failures of what had taken place in the UK after privatisation [36].


This certainly prompts the question as to what type of railway service the public actually wants. Historian, Tony Judt proposes the idea of trains (and all public transport) as being a form of social service. He argues that privately owned rail services are financially efficient in bringing their operator more revenue, but less so in terms of its use by the public as it would generally only connect popular destinations and offer minimal services for more remote locations [37]. From a purely practical perspective, the question is whether the requirements of longer-distance travel necessary to compete with short-haul air travel can be reconciled with the local ‘social services' espoused by Tony Judt. The capacity of railway lines is not infinite, and the market requirements are very different, a high-speed line is designed to connect major urban conurbations with minimal stops in between, but local service requirements are the opposite of this. Whilst long-distance services may offer a serious alternative to airlines, the social provision of the ability to travel is important too, and not suitable for a more financially competitive setting due to an inevitably smaller number of passengers. High-speed long-distance rail travel, which is a potential alternative to airlines, is important, but so too is the geographic integrity of the more localised national rail system which supports it. In the UK the Beeching Cuts (or the Beeching Axe as it is often referred to) saw the extensive closure of many local and middle-distance railway lines across the UK, leaving some areas with no rail service. The initial 1963 report was seen as forward-thinking at the time as trains were falling out of use in favour of a more modern, suburban approach to life which relied on the use and ownership of a car. The passage of time has revealed the unfortunate consequences of the decision, notably the growing concentration of highly skilled and high-status jobs in a small number of urban areas well-served by national or commuter lines, leaving other regions falling behind economically [38]. Calls to counter this, combined with increased costs of purchasing and running cars (as well as the day-to-day frustrations of driving) have placed increased reliance on railways, and demand for an improvement in services that may have not been so dramatic [39] had the ‘Beeching Axe’ not fallen so harshly across the UK. Considerable investment is now being made in reopening stations and whole lines deemed uneconomic and unnecessary little more than fifty years ago. Even the high-speed HS2 line being built largely replaces the old Great Central Line, most of which was closed between1966 and 1969. It seems that other European nations are unable to learn from this as in 2021 it was reported that the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and the Urban Agenda sought to decommission the Madrid-Cuenca-Valencia line. This was strongly opposed by the EU which highlighted the detrimental effects of the closures of middle-distance lines for environmental, economic, and social reasons [40], as has clearly happened in the UK.


If the increased usage of railways is to be maintained at its current level, or as is more likely, grow even further, systems will need to improve to cope with the demand and this will require national governments and independent train operators to work to a common standard. It is a Europe-wide issue that transcends national boundaries and political institutions. Whether the political will, vision, and commitment to achieve this will determine its success or failure. The original Trans-Europ Express was founded in 1957 initially using diesel trains capable of running across different national systems, but in the face of growing air travel the system slowly contracted, replaced by national services by the end of the 1980s, much like what happened internally within many countries. However, it now seems that the pattern is reversing and trains are now of increased importance. But for this to be successful, the need for interoperability is of vast significance in order to improve the user experience, as well as the more general ease of running such a system on a continental scale.


Costs, Emissions & Time:

Here, for the main popular methods of transportation (train, plane, and car), a popular route around major cities in Central and Western Europe is considered. This takes into consideration the price in £ sterling, the time taken physically travelling, and the CO2 emissions for each part of the journey. For air travel in particular there is a range of providers for each part of the route and there are inconsistencies in the cost and time of these, and a median of these has been used. In reality, parts of the journey are inevitably better served by one form of transport rather than another due to the distances involved.


Train:







The CO2 emissions statistics for journeys from London to Amsterdam and Paris to London were taken from the Eurostar website, which compared its CO2 emissions with those from planes [41]. Likewise, the statistics for the journey from Amsterdam to Berlin were taken from the ‘interrail eurail’ website [42]. Emissions for the EuroCity journey from Prague to Vienna takes an average of emissions from other similar services, Eurostar and TGV, reaching 7.2g to then calculate the CO2 emissions for this particular journey as there was no clear amount for this [43]. The calculation for Venice to Rome was based upon the number indicated by Italo for a trip from Rome to Milan [44], and the lack of information online meant the 11.2g statistic for the Eurostar was applied to the railjet from Vienna to Venice [45].


Aviation:







It should be noted that there are virtually no direct flights between Berlin and Prague, with it being suggested to take the train between these cities, with passengers having to fly to Vienna from Berlin, and then back to Prague. To provide a guide price of flights, the average is shown in the median of those available on Friday 9th September 2022. To calculate the emissions, the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (an agency of the United Nations) calculator [46] has been used, aside from the journeys from London to Amsterdam and Paris to London which uses figures from the Eurostar website [47].


Car:







The above has been calculated using these component parts:






The fuel cost is based on the 45p per mile allowance relief suggested by HMRC. In theory, this is supposed to cover the full cost of travel for a mile but recent fuel price increases means that it is increasingly covering fuel costs with only a modest margin to spare. This assumes that this hypothetical car runs on petrol and is not subject to restrictions on diesel vehicles used in a number of cities. It also assumes the car falls under the Euro 6 category meaning that it is not a high pollutant, and would be able to travel into city centres which operate this restriction [48]. The extra fee of £150 from the London to Amsterdam and Paris to London journeys is the average cost of the Eurostar to travel with a car, rather than a car ferry, taking the average of the prices which seem to sit at £170 for peak times and £120 for off-peak times [49]. In Vienna, the €8.30 toll cost covers the basic minimum 10-day motorway pass [50]. The £25 added for Venice takes a suggested price for 24-hour parking outside of the city as it would be unrealistic to travel in with a car [51]. The toll costs in Italy use the suggested €9 per 100km travelled on motorways (or ‘A’ roads in general) for a family car [52]. Likewise, tolls in France are an estimate of motorway use and each journey taken would likely have some variance [53]. Overall, it is rather difficult to calculate a precise cost for this journey, although it does undoubtedly come at some cost.


In conclusion, it does not seem unreasonable to rule out the use of a car due to its high cost of £2,148.82 and long journey time of 3,066 minutes (51 hours and 6 minutes), and the restrictions placed on certain cars in city centres. Therefore, we are left with a choice between aviation and trains. It is clear that trains are a more time-consuming mode of transport with the journey taking 2,854 minutes (or 47 hours and 34 minutes), compared to 800 minutes (or 13 hours and 20 minutes) by plane. Although this time does not include the extra time required at an airport prior to departure as well as after arrival, this would potentially add three hours onto each leg of the journey (totalling 27 hours) this would increase the total time to around 40 hours, therefore putting little significant difference between this and the use of trains, with neither including the very likely potential for delays and outright cancellations. Financially, the train is the cheaper option (£815 compared to £1,140), using standard classes and its equivalents across both, although this does not include any extra costs for baggage that may be expected on planes or any transfers. For the more climate-conscious, the train seems the more favourable option producing 6 times less CO2 emissions than the plane (96.6 kg compared to 650kg).

 
References:

[1] Abdul, G. (July 2022) ‘Heatwaves caused by climate crisis may become regular event, says Met Office chief’, the Guardian

[2] Landler, M. (July 2022) ‘U.K. Heat Wave: Britain Sets New Record on a Second Day of Scorching Temperatures’, The New York Times

[3] Geerts, E. (July 2022) ‘Fires near tracks and heat complaints: hot spell shakes up European railways’, Rail Tech

[4] Chini, M. (July 2022) ‘Belgian rail scraps over 30 trains due to extreme heat on Tuesday’, The Brussels Times

[5] Topham, G. (July 2022) ‘Why do Britain’s roads melt and its rails buckle in heat?’, the Guardian [6] PwC (July 2021) ‘Consumers becoming more eco-conscious and willing to travel, attend mass events, PwC survery reveals’, PwC

[7] Kálmán, A. (January 2022) ‘Trains for a green future- a possibility?’, Investigate Europe

[8] Poirier, A. (August 2022) ‘Working From Anywhere- the holiday never stops’, Engelsberg Ideas

[9] Neate, R. (August 2022) ‘American becomes third airline to place order for Boom Supersonic Jets’, the Guardian

[10] McKibben, B. (June 2021) ‘We Don’t Need Supersonic Travel- in the ‘New Normal’, We Should Slow Down’, The New Yorker

[11] Connolly, K. (September 2022) ‘Europe’s next-generation night trains aim to draw passengers away from planes’, the Guardian

[12] Schmidt, N. and Ferguson, J. (November 2021) ‘Why Europe abandoned its night trains’, Investigate Europe

[13] Oltermann, P. (September 2014) ‘End of the line for Europe’s iconic night trains?’, the Guardian

[14] Farrington, S. and Morton, B. (August 2022) ‘Ryanair boss O’Leary says the era of €10 flights is over’, BBC News

[15] Nelsson R. (September 2021) ‘France’s high-speed TGV train enters service- archive, 1981’, the Guardian

[16] Nijkamp, P. and Vleugel, J. (1993) ‘Success Factors for High Speed Rail Networks in Europe’, International Journal of Transport Economics, Vol.20, no.3, pp.255-270, p.262

[17] International Energy Agency (2019) ‘The Future of Rail’, IEA, p.25

[18] Boffey, D. (December 2021) ‘Faster trains and cheaper tickets to boost European rail travel in new strategy’, the Guardian

[19] Greenpeace (2021) ‘Get On Track: Train alternatives to short-haul flights in Europe’, Greenpeace, p.4

[20] Zeleros (2022) ‘Zerelos Hyperloop’, Zeleros

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