Connecting Europe – TEN-T rail projects fiction or real?

Helene Dyrhauge |

The Commission has recently revised the Trans-European Network for Transport (TEN-T). Similar to previous TEN-T revisions, the new TEN-T priority projects focus on investment in new cross-border rail infrastructure aiming to connect Europe and alleviate road congestions. Interestingly the new TEN-T map emphasises the increased east-west trade – thus recognising the eastward enlargement. The first infrastructure plan was published in the late 1970s, but the foundations for the TEN-T policy originate from the Maastricht treaty, and the TEN-T map was revised in 2005 due to the eastward enlargement. The TEN-T priority projects identified by the Christophersen group in 1994, had to include more than one member state and  had to be European by design instead of national. Thus, the chosen projects represented grand prestige projects which require long term political and financial commitment, whilst the EU provides some funding most of the costs have been shouldered by the member states. Increasingly the focus on rail investment has been tied into the EU’s sustainable mobility strategy. Whilst the strategy is amiable it has always been problematic for three reasons.

Firstly, rail passenger transport is predominately national, as soon as we have to cross a border we are more inclined to jump on a plane (thanks to EU airline liberalisation). It is rather optimistic to hope that the new high-speed rail from Tallinn to Brussels will lead to an actual demand for such a service, the competition from the airlines on time and price will continue to prevail. Instead the new route is more likely to generate a market for shorter distances, such as Berlin-Warsaw or Warsaw-Vilnius.

Perhaps we should rethink travelling, instead of speed and travel time, the emphasis should be on comfort and relaxing – think the classic Oriental Express, but hopefully without the Agatha Christie murder mystery. Long distance rail still offer both sleepers and dinning.  Compared to air travel a 2 hour rail journey is 2 hours, whereas a 2 hour flight entails queuing for security and hanging around the tax free area before finally boarding the plane not to mention waiting for bagage at the destination, in other words a 2 hour plane trip is more like to take 4 hours everything included.  Most train companies offer internet connections so it is possible to work and be connected, or sign out of the virtual world to read a book or enjoy the view whilst travelling through Europe at high-speed.

Secondly, the Commission has consistently argued that increased rail freight is good for the environment, indeed this tie into its sustainable mobility strategy, which has emphasised rail freight over road haulage and the 2011 Transport White Paper aims to cut transport emissions by 60% by 2050. Investing in more rail infrastructure and creating multi-modal hubs to connect the different transport modes will facilitate more movement, and appear to be at odds with the aim of reducing transport emissions, especially given the latest EP vote on car emissions. An alternative would be modal shift and regulating road growth, but this has been rejected by transport users and the Commission. Indeed it goes against the fundamental EU principle – free movement of persons and goods. As such EU infrastructure planning should be seen as an attempt to create a territorial cohesion for the EU’s territory, not dissimilar to national railway building in the 19th Century!

The third issue is national political commitment and financing. The new TEN-T guidelines increase the EU share of financing up to 80 per cent of a project and the overall budget for TEN-T is €26 billion over the next financial period (2014-2020), which has been tripled from previous budgets, but the estimated costs of the core network is €250 billion. Whilst more EU financing is an incentive for member states to build these grand prestige projects, the projects still require more than one member state and national financing. Indeed, diverging national priorities have delayed the original Christophersen projects. For example the Fehmern bridge was identified by the Christophersen group but construction will only start in 2015. According to the Economist Charlemagne similar delays are likely to occur in the construction of the North Sea-Baltic corridor (a rail line between Tallinn-Antwerp).

One of the most successful TEN-T projects is the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, which has facilitated cross-border commuting and created more cross-border cooperation between the Danish and Swedish regions. Moreover, the Øresund Bridge has inspired a crime tv-serie (the Bridge); a collaboration between Danish and Swedish state TV, which has been sold to several EU member states.  Thus, grand cross-border infrastructure projects not only inspire politicians and engineers but also fiction writers. As such it is possible for TEN-T priority projects to bring the EU citizens closer together … although it might be on tv!