Increasing activity for railways

Infrastructure

The primary method of increasing activity levels in railways is the further development of infrastructure. At the same time, investments in railway systems are very expensive and require a long lead-time to pay back. To asses the benefit of the investment, it is necessary to correctly asses the existing and expected volume of demand. The existing and – even more importantly – the expected demand, should be high enough to  compensate negative externalities during construction, the barrier effect, as well as noise and visual intrusion. Presenting railway development as an alternative to motorway development could increase public acceptance for this measure. In addition, the durability of the railway tracks (the tracks should be functional for decades with some maintenance) needs to be taken into consideration when the cost assessment is made. 

Below, the three main areas of action related to infrastructure, that can increase activity levels for this mode of transport and shift traffic from more carbon intensive modes of transport, are shortly described. 

1. Improvement of local connections

Due to the increasing popularity of car ownership, many local lines, most of which were used for daily commuting, have been abolished. Renovation and development of such connections offers the potential for a modal shift from road to rail. However, it must be ensured, that the connections are reliable and if possible, result in time (and money) savings for commuters. The impact of local train connections can be significantly increased if the stations are equipped with parking spaces for cars and bikes, preferably equipped chargers for modes of transport. This would allow for using train to cover larger part of the distance that would otherwise be fully covered by car.  

2. Improving cross-border connections 

Travelling across EU borders by train is still not as smooth as is the case for travelling by car or flying. In many cases a change of trains is necessary or long waiting time at the border between the countries is required. One way to mitigate the issue is the creation of the Single European Railway Area. The Commission has put forward a proposal for a European Partnership on Rail Research and Innovation, building upon Shift2Rail initiative, which fosters research and innovation in Europe’s railway sector. This issue will be addressed with the implementation of the ERTMS system, including different track charges. 

3. High-speed rail 

Although high-speed rail accounts for only 2% of the global rail network, it transports one-quarter of all rail passengers. For distances up to 1,200 kilometres, high-speed rail competes with air transport.

IEA’s most ambitious rail scenario for 2050 projects that China could decrease its transport emissions 12% by continuing to massively expand rail, including reaching over 100,000 kilometres of high-speed track.

Turkey is developing 16 new lines to connect major cities in a 1,652-kilometre network by 2023.21 It is planning more than 30 new high-speed rail lines, for a total of 7,419 kilometres, and completed tests in 2020 on the 393-kilometre Ankara-Sivas line, expected to be operational in late 2021.

Night trains

 According to European Passenger Federation data, the number of night trains (long-distance cross-border trains) in Europe decreased significantly, from 1257 in 2001 to 445 pairs of trains per week in 2019.

After a significant decrease in popularity, some night train connections reopened recently. The first night train in Austria since 2003 commenced operation in 2020, travelling from Vienna to Brussels. Sweden launched night train services to Belgium and Germany to reduce dependence on aviation and minimise travel impacts.

Smaller railway operators, such as the Austrian ÖBB, have focused on developing night trains. They are developing a network of international connections, utilising their geographical location. As part of an emergency report on strategies to decrease global oil demand, IEA estimates suggest replacing air travel with night trains would reduce global oil demand by around 40 thousand barrels per day.

Night trains are characterised by a steady, almost linear increase in costs. Therefore, it isn’t easy to achieve the economies of scale seen on daytime trains, partly due to the different cost structures of night trains. Additionally, buying and operating night trains is an expensive affair. A proposition is in play for the EU to buy a massive fleet of rolling stock for night trains and lease them to operators. Given higher costs and more sophisticated technology, policymakers must sort out the lack of international trains within the EU via strategic investments, preferential loans, and even the creation of a European stock pool. Further requirements are high political will and collaboration between national and international governments. These are necessary to address scheduling and the price competition between other modes of transport which benefit from high subsidies or lack internalisation of external costs.

Night trains may play a significant role in moving away from intra-EU aviation. However, to play an important role, they need to fulfil the following conditions:

  • comfortability
  • affordability
  • frequency
  • price parity – reduction of subsidies for airlines
  • ticketing – major national rail operators should sell tickets online for trips that involve different operators
  • interoperability – implementation of ERTMS
  • reducing track access charges
  • improved infrastructure
  • helping operators buy rolling stock through European funding

Additional sources:

Worth, J. (2020). How could the EU solve the night train conundrum? Procure a massive fleet of night train carriages and lease them to operators.

Reduced ticket taxes

One of the most often cited hurdles to reduced emissions in travel is the high cost of rail tickets, particularly when compared to plane ticket prices. One reason for this disparity is the relatively high rate of taxation levied on train tickets, which far outpaces the undertaxed aviation sector. To be competitive with rate-cut plane tickets, train tickets need to see reduced taxes, and rail service providers need to pass those reductions on to the consumers. 

There has been some movement in this area, as governments seek to incentivise train travel, and lower VAT rates have been connected to lower train fares. For example, the German government has cut the rate of value-added tax (VAT) on rail travel from 19% to 7%, and with the national rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) passing on this reduction to passengers, some fares of 50km or over have come down by around 10%. Switzerland saw a 0.3% drop in train prices across the board in June 2018 as a direct consequence of VAT reductions and in contrast to the general trend of increasing train fares across Europe. The United Kingdom has zero-rated VAT for train tickets (in addition to bus fares and taxi rides). While not a VAT exemption, the 0% VAT has reduced fares on train tickets, as rail companies can still claim VAT credits on input, and ticket-holders don’t pay the additional VAT tax. 

Rail Delivery Group (RDG), an industry group from the UK, pointed out that aeroplane fuel is tax-exempt in a recent proposal. In contrast, rail operators have to pay levies on electricity which have doubled in recent years, pushing costs and ticket prices up. RDG argues that taxes now account for up to 40% of electricity costs for rail providers and that the ‘polluter pays’ concept only applies to non-air travel. Other countries have similar disparities and have struggled to close the gap between air and rail travel taxation. 

International trips

It is much easier to book an international flight than an international train trip. If one travels cross-border in Europe involving more than one operator, there is no “one-stop-shop” for booking a train ticket. While websites like Rome2Rio allow for connections to be planned in advance, this service does not allow for booking the tickets, nor does it provide any live data on connections. Train operators do not share data or ticket selling rights. Also, they typically don’t sell through tickets. Rail operators tend to sell tickets only for segments of a journey instead of combined tickets, therefore bypassing obligations relating to compensation, re-routing and assistance. Also, rail operators’ websites do not provide interfaces to other operators’ systems.

European law obliges rail transport operators to share only basic data with other rail carriers or independent ticket vendors. The regulation does not cover fare data and leaves it open to member states to require dynamic travel and traffic data (e.g. information on platform numbers and changes, accurate seat plans, real-time delays and cancellations, and predicted arrival time). These data are critical for a seamless journey and for passengers to find alternative connections in case of disruptions.

Independent ticket vendors need to enter into bilateral agreements with every rail operator and can only sell tickets to which the rail operator gives them access. Therefore, these vendors can only get access to, for example, standard fares, but not to reduced fares or railcards, making it difficult for them to assemble their own products. 

The booking process needs to be significantly simplified. A rail ticketing regulation could achieve this simplification, enabling passengers to search and book rail tickets across Europe with one click, up to 9-12 months in advance, under the protection of passenger rights for the entire trip.

Railway services

For rail services to compete with other forms of transportation, the train must be an appealing option and fulfil the passengers’ requirements for a comfortable journey. 

On a basic level, the train service should be easy to navigate – signage should be conspicuous, timetables should be accurate and easy to read, ticketing should be straightforward and uncomplicated, and connections between major cities should be as direct as possible. Cross-border journeys require information sharing and navigable ticketing systems as it is often quite challenging to determine routes and tickets for train journeys crossing multiple borders. Additionally, multimodal ticketing should be improved so that passengers can complete their journey door-to-door with ease.

For journeys which require a transfer – particularly for those which require a transfer between rail services – the risk of missing a departure is entirely on the passenger as rail services are currently not obliged to provide “through tickets” which guarantee arrival on time when using services of different operators. 

Likewise, timeliness contributes to journey satisfaction – delays have been shown to sway customer satisfaction and opinion significantly. Rail services must ensure high-quality service with minimal delays. Other complaints include crowding and lack of luggage space, which operators can address by increasing trains frequency and length. 

Railway amenities are also integral to travelling by train and the customer experience and appeal. Rail services can maximise customer comfort by offering food and drink, increasing power socket availability, and providing entertainment opportunities through free Wi-Fi and onboard streaming. Since rail travel is increasingly often used for working, creating quiet areas in cars and other comfort-oriented measures can increase railway appeal too. 

Examples:

National Rail, a service in the United Kingdom, has announced a series of service-improvement projects beginning in 2022: construction of a new line across London and improvements to rolling stock (better lighting and air conditioning, more wheelchair-accessible spaces, and improved CCTV for customer safety and comfort). Other projects include a revamp of Gatwick airport to alleviate congestion and crowding, which had consistently been the chief complaint of both commuters and leisure travellers. 

London Northwestern Railway is revitalising its rail stations to improve the customer experience by improving accessibility options, re-engineering stations to avoid bottleneck points, and improving restrooms for customer comfort. 

In Summer 2021, German Railways started operating XXL-ICE trains on selected lines and increased train frequency on others. The XXL trains have a length of 374 meters, can carry up to 900 passengers, and travel at 265 km/h. 

Interval timetables

Easy travel planning significantly increases the attractiveness of railways. If the trains are coming at the same minute every hour and the waiting time is short at transfer at the nodes, the railways are more attractive. Rail passenger transport services with integrated regular interval timetables (IRIT) offer passengers a regular interval timetable for services on the railway network. IRIT have the potential to increase the quality and attractiveness of railway passenger services in comparison to other transport modes. 

The taxonomy developed by Finger et al. (2014) for Swiss Economics identifies four general levels of regular timetables:

Level 0: In a railway system without regular timetables, the trains run at irregular intervals, e.g. only at rush hour times or when they are completely booked. 

Level 1: Simple regular timetables are the most reduced form to introduce timetables and refer to schedules with frequent trains. 

Level 2: The next step would be the introduction of regular symmetrical timetables. In this case, the train connections cross at network nodes at some specific time but without coordinating the crossing time at all network nodes.

Level 3: Integrated regular timetables refer to regular symmetric timetables with train connections meeting at all network nodes at a specific time (e.g. at the full hour). The symmetric frequency is introduced for all network nodes, which have been defined in advance. Integrated regular timetables, which are designed to be attractive for customers, also consider aspects like the frequency of connections during the day and the tariff system (one tariff system for national rail and cooperation with/between regional rail networks and across transport systems). 

Level 4: In the last level of integrated regular interval timetables, trains run at a very high frequency, like a metro system, every five or ten minutes. The train frequency is so high that time schedules become irrelevant.

Example:

In Switzerland, timetables are organised symmetrically around the hour (‘minute .00’) with a basic timetable structure repeating every 60 or 30 minutes depending on demand. A particular service may depart from the station at 08:00, 08:30, 09:00, 09:30, etc., every day – a pattern that is easily understandable and memorable for passengers. To coordinate this schedule, trains running on the same route in opposite directions need to mirror one another more or less. If train A arrives ‘x’ minutes before the hour, its counterpart travelling in the opposite direction must depart ‘x’ minutes after the hour, with the two crossing in the middle. Some lines do not operate on a strict clock-face schedule due to asymmetric lines or other physical constraints. 

Policy measures

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