A well-connected cross-border railway system is the backbone of European transnational mobility. Yet many cross-border points still look like a patchwork reflecting myriad different national systems.
European railways have a chequered history. The invention of the railway in the first half of the 19th century made it possible to transport people and goods in large quantities over long distances fast and cost-efficiently – the basis for the industrialisation. The railway developed into the means of mass transportation par excellence. The Second World War marked a turning point.
A significant part of the cross-border infrastructure was destroyed and not rebuilt. The Iron Curtain divided the continent for several decades. Meanwhile, road transport has been increasingly favoured in transport policy, as the conversion of cities to ‘car cities’ has shown. The degree of motorisation increased continuously.
Today, the share of passenger rail in land transport in the European Union is just 7.8 percent (2017), with national transport predominant, representing more than 80 percent of the total passenger numbers (2018).
The European Commission has proposed to make 2021 the European Year of Rail. The idea is driven by the objective of achieving a climate-neutral European Union (EU) by 2050. As an environmentally friendly transport mode, rail has the opportunity to play a significant role in helping cut transport emissions. Rail accounts for just 2 percent of total EU energy consumption in transport. So far, however, the required modal shift to rail has not been achieved, but cross-border rail transport in particular has a big catch-up potential.
Already in the early days of rail transport, international agreements, such as the International Convention concerning the Carriage of Goods by Rail (COTIF) from 1890, were signed in order to open up Europe to cross-border rail transport. Nevertheless, the railway systems that have grown nationally often differ in many aspects, such as gauge, signalling, power systems or regulations. These technical barriers mean that trains cannot operate in every country. The EU aims at harmonising European railways. A core element of this EU policy is the introduction of a single EU-wide railway signalling system which goes under the name ‘European Rail and Traffic Management System (ERTMS)’. However, its deployment in EU Member States is at a low level so far and its current state is more of a piecemeal solution.
ERTMS is also promoted within the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). A key element of the EU Policy on TEN-T is to implement and develop a Europe-wide network of rail. It consists of a core and comprehensive network and should be established with the help of financial instruments of the EU, such as the Connecting Europe Facility. EU funding of rail infrastructure has a focus on the needs of cross-border transport and the removal of bottlenecks.
But a gap exists between the number and size of projects and the available financing. With a focus on expensive major projects such as the Lyon-Turin rail tunnel little money is left for other projects.
Member States tend to focus on projects that they anticipate will improve their national network. The European Court of Auditors stated that a considerable amount of co-funding for infrastructure has not helped to improve the European rail network enough. A major concern was that funds were directed to national high-speed projects with limited cross-border interconnectivity.
In a nutshell, the EC’s capacity to align certain policies with the common interest which would bring added valued to cross-border connections is often limited and tied to a relatively small budget.
Off the TEN-T network and consequently with a limited access to EU funding, many small-scale cross-border projects can be found. Often, just a few kilometres of rail infrastructure are missing. Additionally, these projects are slowed down by different national interests: between Colmar (France) and Freiburg (Germany), the bridge over the river Rhine has been destroyed. To this day there are ongoing discussions about who should bear the financing for rebuilding, despite the fact that everyone has an interest in it. The dispute arises primarily over whether the project also has a supra-regional significance.
In conclusion, the European railway network remains a patchwork full of gaps at the national borders. This is remarkable as 40 percent of the EU's territory consists of border regions, which also represent one-third of the Union’s population.
Sources for data and graphics: Railway electrification system, Wikipedia, https://bit.ly/3nLD1YK; European Commission, https://bit.ly/3jKO4iI; European Commission, EU TRANSPORT in figures, https://bit.ly/37LQGdI; VZBV, Gutachten Marktübersicht Buchung grenzüberschreitender Tickets im Bahnverkehr, https://bit.ly/35ILqoy