The European Commission aims to be more than “just a passenger” in efforts to build the transport of tomorrow.
That was one of the keynote messages to emerge from EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič who was speaking at an event which aims to showcase current innovation and entrepreneurship in the rail sector in Europe.
The event, in particular, was an opportunity for rail start-ups to outline what they are doing for the industry and also to raise awareness of current problems that they face.
As part of the European Year of Rail, the European Startup Prize for Mobility has brought together over 70 start ups and rail organisations in order to “crowd-think” what the EU can do in order to foster more innovation in the field of rail.
Some of the participants in the program took part in a lively and stimulating discussion on Tuesday.
In an opening speech at the event, the EU commissioner said, “The history of rail is a European one. The railroad was pioneered in Europe; one of the world’s fastest trains run on our tracks. And we remain a global leader when it comes to rail transport.”
He added, “But we can’t afford to stand still when it comes to the future. As legendary American actor Will Rogers once said, “even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
Sefcovic, responsible for the Interinstitutional Relations and foresight file at the Commission, said that over the past 25 years, the European Commission has worked to develop a strong and competitive rail transport industry by opening the market to competition, developing infrastructure, and improving the interoperability and safety of national networks.
He cautioned, “But as Europe’s recovery from the pandemic kicks into high gear, innovation, investment and collaboration are key if we are to remain in the lead.”
Thoughts, he said, automatically turn to start-ups – “In many ways the engine of innovation in our economies and societies.”
This, he noted, is especially the case in the context of the EU Year of Rail.
The role of rail in Europe
This initiative is highlighting the benefits of rail as a sustainable, smart and safe means of transport. Throughout 2021, a variety of activities will put trains in the spotlight across the continent, to encourage the use of rail by both people and businesses, he told the online audience.
This, he said, will also contribute to the European Green Deal goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050 – with rail responsible for less than 0.5% of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions.
“The rail industry could also benefit from the rapid deployment of 5G networks – something also prioritised under the recovery plan and in particular its digital transformation leg. So I am delighted that more than 70 rail organisations and start-ups contributed to the new Rail Manifesto being presented today.”
He added, “I certainly appreciate the work that the European Startup Prize for Mobility does to boost sustainable innovation in Europe – I was presented with their previous manifesto, ‘raising the voice of Europe’s sustainable mobility start-ups’, last September.
The official believes the future is “very bright” for Europe’s rail industry, he said, adding, “and I can promise you that the Commission will be more than just a passenger in your efforts to build the transport of tomorrow.”
He concluded saying he looks forward to working together with the start ups “to help turn some of these ideas into reality.
Disrupting the rail industry
The event, called “Raising the voices of rail tech startups,” was presented by the European Startup Prize for Mobility together with The Brussels Times, and was divided into separate sessions. It was directed and animated by digital story-teller Dan Sobovitz.
It heard that rail mobility offers “tremendous” opportunities for businesses, travel safety and above all sustainability. But, while Europe may be seen as a global leader in the rail sector, there is still enormous potential for further innovation.
Representatives of the start ups have produced 35 concrete recommendations which they presented in the first European Startup Manifesto on Rail and which are now open for endorsements from more startups from across Europe. On Tuesday, the startups presented their recommendations to the EU institutions and rail industry on 5 of the topics covered by the Manifesto.
The online event featured speakers from three EU institutions, parliament, commission and CoR, including German Greens MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, a member of the Committee on Transport and Tourism at the European Parliament.
She said, “We should not stop dreaming of a better decarbonised world. We need a trial an error culture and look at these start ups. At times they do not understand us so we must be a kind of translator for these start ups. But their creativity can help us build a better future. At the same time we want to strengthen rail for Europe and to see a strong shift to rail. We will not reach our climate goals without this. We must not just promote rail but do a lot more besides.”
Another participant, Robert van Asten, the Dutch rapporteur on Smart and Sustainability Mobility Strategy at European Committee of Regions, said, “This start up initiative is great but one of the main challenges is to connect to the green transition. We must use new digital solutions from start ups, to create better policy. We already work with start ups at The Hague but hope this event will be a way of promoting them to a greater audience.”
Another speaker was Carlo Maria Borghini, Executive Director of the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking.
He said, “The shift to rail is a joint venture of the EU and the rail sector to deliver a major transformation of the rail sector. We need to transform ourselves and rethink the way we operate and work with other modes of transport. We have to demonstrate the benefits of transforming the rail system. The reason I am taking part today is to remind people what rail is about and how they can help with the changes that our necessary in the shift to rail.”
In a panel on data sharing, open data and ticketing, Therese Albertsson, co-founder at @AllAboard, said, “My company allows passengers to book tickets all over Europe and we are delighted to have received one of the start up prizes. “
She explained, “Our mission is to make long distance booking fun for passengers but we face main challenges, including getting access to good quality data. We need easy and good quality access to data such as timetables. The current system is out dated and limits innovation. The second challenge we face is access to a good ticketing inventory. Today, the train operators dictate what tickets to sell and this system does not help passengers but it also does not encourage innovation among rail start ups. “
In another panel on collaboration between start ups and stakeholders, Niels van Damme, co-founder @OTIV,explained what his company is doing to encourage closer collaboration between start ups and rail companies.
He said, “We must put rail back on track to be the most favourable means of transport for the public. We have some success stories to tell including our work with the Dutch railways but we need to push the whole industry forward and continue to lag behind other modes of transport.”
Nick Brooks, General Secretary at @AllRail, said, “We represent independent rail passengers and collaboration is needed but also competition. Start ups enter the value chain but must face non discriminatory conditions in order to operate.”
He added, “The enter value chain must be open to start ups so that the whole sector can grow. We do not need a revolution but the same conditions for all. We are now there yet.”
Emmanuel Mounier, General Secretary at @EUtraveltech, said, “Rail passengers cannot find easy solutions when booking tickets, particularly compared with airline passengers. We need to open competition and facilitate the end of fragmentation. Rail should become much more easier to use for passengers in Europe. My message today is that you can count on us if you want this and also achieve greener transport.”
The Brussels Times