This week the European Union proclaimed 2021 as the “year of the rail”.
The year is of great importance for the EU's railway policy: The fourth railway package, a legislative set of reforms aimed at harmonising European rail traffic, was already proposed by the European Commission in 2013 but will be in force for a year for the first time this year. It is the culmination of a fifteen-year reform process that aims to bring profound changes to the rail sector in terms of services, state monopolies and international cooperation.
COVID-19 may have had a major impact on the number of (international) passengers, but the railways have also kept us afloat during the crisis thanks to the transport of medicines, fuel and food. Back on Track Belgium hopes for a new European transport sector when travel restrictions melt away: one in which the train is the natural choice for passengers for distances up to 1500 km.
A first step in this direction was made last year by the German Minister of Transport Andreas Scheuer. In September, he presented a concept of the Trans-Europ Express 2.0 (TEE 2.0), named after the beautiful (but expensive) trains that ran between 1957 and 1987 and which, at their peak, connected 130 European cities.
The current concept consists, in a first step, of eight routes combining night trains and high-speed trains, without requiring too much infrastructure work to make the whole thing work. Later in 2020, the French, Austrian and Swiss railway companies announced their intention to work together with Deutsche Bahn to make this plan more concrete.
So we have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of (night) rail in Western and Central Europe. However, there are still major challenges ahead: the different national railway companies still all use their own booking systems, there is a lack of information exchange between the different operators, the risk of missing a transfer lies with the passenger.
Cooperation between the European railway operators has proven notoriously fragile and night train services have often not been economically viable since the 2000s. Moreover, low-cost airlines still manage, partly thanks to solid tax advantages, to seduce most international passengers with very cheap flight tickets.
Yet it is important that we, the passengers, choose the international train again if we want to avoid a dangerous climate change. The European Green Deal asks the European transport sector as a whole to emit 90% less greenhouse gases by 2030. So we still have a few years to renew our technologies, but more and more policymakers – such as the German transport minister - seem to realise that we will not meet this target without a return to rail.
The night train ideally runs on routes between 800 and 1500 km, just enough to fill a night. Much longer routes would create problems for staff shifts, for (water) supply and they would test passengers' patience.
From Brussels, it is the ideal distance for destinations such as Barcelona, the south coast of France, Milan, but also Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Stockholm and Malmö. Let it be just these routes that are the busiest for the low-cost airlines from Charleroi and Zaventem. Yet, the tracks are already there, the train stations in these cities have already been built and, and in contrast to the high-speed lines, it is only the investments in sleeping cars that need to be made.
A modern night train, which meets today's passengers' demands for comfort and privacy, seems the ideal more sustainable alternative to the cheap flights that have seduced European travellers en masse since the early 2000s.
At the moment, however, Brussels only has one night train connection: the NightJet connects the European capital with Vienna twice a week since January 2020. This was the case, at least, until COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works and there had to be a pause.
Through 2020, the Austrian railway company ÖBB assessed that a passenger taking the night train Brussels-Vienna emits ten times less CO2 than a passenger making the same journey by air. A result that, by the way, nicely matches the ambition of the European Green Deal.
Still, a city like Brussels has all the assets to become a hub for European night trains: our capital city employs thousands of expats, is connected to a dense railway network and is well connected to European metropoles like Paris and Amsterdam. Brussels-Midi station also offers connections to the Eurostar, the gateway to the United Kingdom by rail.
If Belgium's new federal government takes the lead in partnerships with interested neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and France, Brussels may soon become our dreamed night train hub. But for that, we also need your support, dear passenger. When the tough sanitary measures fall away and you are busy making travel plans to enjoy life again, consider exploring Europe by train.
Let the European Year of Rail also become Brussels’ Year of Rail.