EUROPE: ‘We need to have a medium and long-term vision for rail’, emphasised Portugal’s Minister for Infrastructure & Housing Pedro Nuno Santos on March 29, officially launching the European Union Year of Rail with a virtual conference hosted from Lisboa.

Explaining that the current Portuguese presidency of the EU was putting rail at the heart of its transport agenda for its six-month term, Santos suggested that the modal shift targets set out in the European Commission’s Sustainable & Smart Mobility Strategy presented in December were not sufficiently challenging to achieve decarbonisation of the transport sector.

He noted that the proposed trebling of high speed passenger traffic and doubling of rail freight over 35 years represented annual growth rates of 3% and 2% respectively, which were less than the growth in air travel during 2011-19 and barely enough to keep up with projected economic growth. ‘If we remain convinced by modal shift, the bar must be set even higher’, he believed.


European Commissioner Adina Vălean underlined the importance of completing the TEN-T network and accelerating the deployment of ERTMS, as well as addressing missing links to improve connectivity across Europe. She announced the launch of a Connecting Europe Express exhibition train, which will tour the continent from September, starting in Lisboa and ending in Paris, while visiting all member state capitals and ‘partner’ countries such as Switzerland and Serbia.

The Netherlands’ State Secretary for Infrastructure & Water Management Stientje van Veldhoven reported good progress with the International Railway Passenger Transport Platform, established in response to a 27-country ministerial declaration of June 2020. Reporting that an action plan to revitalise international daytime and overnight passenger services would be published in June, she reiterated the objective in the EU Green Deal of achieving carbon-neutral travel for all journeys of less than 500 km.

Although she recognised that the rail sector was living through ‘extraordinary circumstances’ as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, van Veldhoven insisted on the need to focus on decarbonisation and modal shift, warning that ‘there is no vaccine against climate change’.

Change of mindset

Suggesting that the Year of Rail offered a ‘unique opportunity’ to share facts and change minds, MÁV CEO Robert Homolya representing the Community of European Railways said it was important to publicise rail’s position as the most sustainable transport mode. However, this may need further legislative policies, particularly around recognising external costs and benefits. ‘Recovery from the pandemic should be used to accelerate the decarbonisation of transport across all modes’, he said, while accepting that rail needed to become more competitive for both freight and passenger traffic.

While Santos had called for greater public sector investment, and suggested that liberalisation had failed to grow market share despite decades of legislative initiatives, Allrail CEO Erich Forster believed that this reflected the continuing dominance of state-owned incumbents. He called for more work to encourage on-rail competition, which would enable all operators to respond more rapidly to emerging market opportunities.


Speaking for the freight sector, Clemens Först of Rail Freight Forward emphasised rail’s advantages in terms of energy consumption. He noted that significant investment in Austria’s rail network had helped to drive modal shift and achieve a market share of around 30%. In its RFF 2.0 strategy, the group wanted to address ‘big ticket’ items such as digital autocouplers, automation and capacity management, he explained. Also calling for a ‘mindset shift among all stakeholders’, Först said infrastructure managers needed to think about the priority of freight trains which were often fighting for capacity against local demands for enhanced regional passenger services.

Technical harmonisation

EU Agency for Railways Executive Director Josef Doppelbauer hoped that the Year of Rail would be the start of a ‘greener age of rail’, adding that the agency would be continuing to drive for technical harmonisation. ‘We need a genuine European network and not a patchwork of national railways’, he stressed.

UNIFE Chairman and Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge reiterated the commitment of the European supply industry to the Year of Rail, and to the roll-out of interoperability, while maintaining the importance of ensuring that tenders for new technology took into consideration wider social and environmental benefits. He suggested that decision-makers also needed to consider urban mobility as much as main lines, given the importance of local transport to economic activity.