Flying less and the problems with cross-border trains

Helene Dyrhauge |

Climate politics are increasingly looking at decarbonizing the transport sector. Part of the debate focuses on increased pollution from civil aviation, where Ryanair is in the top 10 of EU emitters. Part of the debate focuses on flying less, i.e. twitter #flyingless, and staying on the ground, i.e. rail travel. More recently, the Danish Socialist People’s Party has proposed to increase cross-border rail travel thereby taking the debate into mainstream climate politics. Thus, there is an increased focus on the railways to deliver cross-border services.

Why is cross-border train travel so difficult? The short answer, railways are inherently national whereas aviation and maritime are international in nature. The European Commission has promoted the European railways, for almost 30 years, through market opening and Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). Simultaneously, the EU has liberalized air travel and road haulage. Whilst air travel have become cheaper and more competitive, the railways continue to be mainly state-owned railway companies financed by national governments.

The EU railway governance structure and market opening attempt to create transparent administrative procedures at national level that enable cross-border rail travel and  domestic market opening. However, some member states and incumbent railways have not supported market opening, which are reflected in EU decision-making (for detailed discussion see my book).

Some of the obstacles to more cross-border rail travel mentioned in the flying less debate are; lack of one-stop shop ticketing, expensive fares, lack of night trains and lack of investment in high-speed trains

The Commission has talked about a one-stop shop, including ticketing, since I was a PhD student doing interviews a decade ago. Some rail operators have started to work together to provide online ticketing e.g., just as you can book international journey on individual operators’ websites, e.g. The man in seat 61 website tells you how to get around Europe by rail and how to get the best deals. However, these tentative steps cannot compete with the traditional travel websites. Instead, there is a need for collaboration between rail operators and traditional travel website to make international rail travel more accessible.

Rail fares are expensive and the idea of breaking up journeys to save money is new to many who are used to booking flights. Governments can use taxes and charges to faciliate modal shift from air to rail, e.g. many climate movements have suggested a carbon tax on flying. Another option is to create an EU fund or use regional funds or TEN-T funds to facilitate start-up operations of cross-border rail traffic, such rail service promotes mobility and cultural exchange, which are central to the EU principles, crucially the programme would have to comply with state aid rules. Nevertheless, member states would have to agree on funding in the new multi-annual budget.

The lack of night trains in some parts of Europe is problematic. The geographical periphery like the Baltic countries and the Nordic countries would benefit from cross-border night trains to the geographical centre. By comparison, ÖBB, the Austrian railway company, is successful in operating cross-border night trains to neighbouring countries. Moreover, night trains can be expensive, and more demand for night trains necessitate change in consumer behaviour, so consumers see night trains as part of the holiday and an extra hotel stay.

The TEN-T investment in cross-border high-speed rail infrastructure is behind schedule because large-scale cross-border infrastructure projects are difficult, e.g. the Eurotunnel and more recently the Fehmarn bridge. It takes time for big national infrastructure projects to find the right window of opportunities, and international projects require different national agendas to merge into one window of opportunity. Thus, there is no real prospect that all the planned priority TEN-T rail projects will be built in the near future.

Overall, successful cross-border rail traffic requires strong bottom-up mobilisation to push for change at national level and EU level. More importantly, it requires grass-root pressure on the railway industry and traditional travel agencies to deliver competitive rail travel solutions. Until then, “EU railway market … is not a high-speed train, which is quickly reaching its destination – A Single European Railway Area – instead it is a slow regional train, stopping at all stations” (Dyrhauge 2013: 160).