CORONAVIRUS has disrupted normal life the world over, creating a public health crisis unprecedented in living memory. Unfortunately, this is not the only threat that must be tackled as climate change continues to make a precarious situation even more fragile.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has linked the two phenomenon by explaining that “almost all recent pandemics originate in wildlife, and there is evidence that increasing human pressure on the natural environment may drive disease emergence.” Just as European railways have played an important role in moving essential workers and critical supplies during the Covid-19 crisis, the railways and the supply industry have unique assets that can be of use during the European Union’s (EU) continued climate action efforts but the rail industry must be empowered both legislatively and budgetarily to optimise its sustainable contribution.

Fortunately, the EU’s president, Mrs Ursula von der Leyen, had the foresight to already make the EU Green Deal the European Commission’s (EC) hallmark project. This ambitious initiative was initially intended to serve as a roadmap for Europe’s climate action that would lead the EU to climate neutrality by mid-century.

However, given the severity of months-long economic disruption, the EU Green Deal has now taken on the form of Europe’s economic guiding light as the EC moves to complete a green transition that will necessitate a systemic overhaul of virtually all sectors and the requisite funds to do so.
Transport, as the second largest greenhouse gas-emitting sector after energy production, will be of particular focus. While other modes of mass transport have generated nearly 24% of Europe’s emissions, resulting in the sector being the only one to see increases in emissions during the last two decades, rail is the exception. Our sector has managed to reduce its carbon footprint while moving even greater numbers of passengers and freight volumes. This is why von der Leyen pledged to shift “a substantial part of the 75% of inland freight carried today by road … onto rail and inland waterways” during her EU Green Deal presentation to the European Parliament.

While the European rail supply industry knows that it can deliver sustainable mobility to Europeans, it is important that it is adequately supported to rapidly deploy the necessary tools.

The first step is to ensure that EU funds are properly mobilised to provide greater access to rail as the backbone of future sustainable mobility. Recently, the EC made a renewed proposal for the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) amounting to €1.1 trillion and a welcome additional Covid-19 recovery supplement totalling €750bn called Next Generation EU.

While we understand that the ongoing budget negotiations between the Parliament and member states will be contentious as the EU grapples with the economic ramifications of Covid-19, Unife recommends substantial envelopes be set aside for the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), and the EU Structural Funds, InvestEU, as well as within the new Recovery and Resilience facility and Just Transition Mechanism.

EU funds, along with the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) instruments, are making concrete contributions to mainline and urban rail projects that decarbonise our transport system while providing citizens with jobs, economic development, education and accessible housing while alleviating the detrimental consequences of growing urbanisation. Reassuringly, the EU’s executive vice-president, Mr Frans Timmermans, has echoed this assessment by stating that “we absolutely need a vibrant and strong public transport sector to fulfil our Green Deal goals” and that the CEF, InvestEU and other funds would prioritise sustainable mobility such as rail. Unife will continue to engage with the EC and the EIB to ensure the continued modernisation and expansion of our railways, as well as the economic resurgence that it will generate.

“It is essential that the European Union continues to spur on research and innovation initiatives that will make rail even greener and more efficient in the future.”

Mr Philippe Citroën, director general of the European Rail Industry Association (Unife)

Beyond making funding directly available for rail projects, it is essential that the EU continues to spur on research and innovation initiatives that will make it even greener and more efficient in the future. Shift2Rail has made several breakthroughs but there is still potential for more rail innovations that will make our systems more sustainable, efficient and seamless.

Shift2Rail is striving to cut railway life cycle costs by as much as 50%, double capacity, and increase reliability and punctuality by up to 50%. It has made considerable progress on ERTMS game changers and the evolution of signalling systems including the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS), automatic train operation, cyber security, big data, energy efficiency and more which will make travel frictionless and more interoperable across the EU.

These goals are achievable if the programme is continued as an institutional partnership under Horizon Europe. One key ambition of Shift2Rail-2, the successor to Shift2Rail, is to make rail the backbone of mobility by answering both passenger and freight end-users’ needs.

The rail sector, which strongly supports Shift2Rail-2, has already committed itself to EU Green Deal objectives towards Shift2Rail by addressing transport decarbonisation, the development of rail freight within Europe, and the digitalisation of rail transport needed to create the tools that will compound these benefits. The programme will also further contribute to the creation of a Single European Rail Area (Sera).

Sera will not be achieved with innovations and EU funds alone, it will need the full and timely transposition of the technical pillar of the Fourth Railway Package. Due to the extraordinary circumstances created by the current coronavirus crisis, the EC published a proposal on April 29 to introduce an additional optional extension for the transposition of the technical pillar. Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Latvia and Slovakia transposed in mid-June, while the remaining 12 who have not completed the transposition process are now due to transpose the Directives and join the Fourth Railway Package regime by the new deadline of October 31.
Unife believes that it is essential that these 12 member states transpose sooner rather than later as any delay hampers the EU Agency for Railways’ transformation into a “One-Stop Shop” for vehicle authorisation. This progress will make it quicker, easier and cheaper to get next generation, sustainable rail products to market simultaneously across Europe.


Finally, the EU must ensure that there is fair competition and an international level playing field. As businesses seek security following Covid-19 disruptions, it is crucial that they do not face suspicious competition from third country state-owned enterprises that seek to capitalise on current market conditions. At the moment, public procurement constitutes approximately 20% of the EU’s GDP and is of great importance to European suppliers of rail products.

The EC’s recent proposal in a white paper on levelling the playing field regarding foreign subsidies marks a significant step in the right direction. The white paper proposes several options to tackle these distortions created by foreign subsidies within the Single Market, including in public procurement and projects using EU funds. Unife is calling for an ambitious and swift legislative proposal to be made in 2021 to achieve a level playing field in the Single Market.

“Together, we can create economic growth, provide citizens with the services they need and create a more equitable international market.”

Philippe Citroën

Unife will also continue to advocate that train operators and infrastructure managers make use of the Most Economically Advantageous Tender (Meat) principle, whereby bids are evaluated more holistically based on their qualitative, social and environmental rigor, as well as life-cycle costs.

Internationally, we urge the European institutions to finalise legislative discussions pertaining to the International Procurement Instrument (IPI) as a means of opening international procurement markets to European businesses. This instrument will help level the playing field, an essential condition for our industry’s continued competitiveness and status as a world leader in sustainable rail product innovation. Unife will also continue to work with international standardisation and harmonisation bodies to ensure that global rail governance remains equitable and contributes to making our sector more streamlined and efficient.

Europe is only now starting to exit the current coronavirus crisis. As we slowly reduce prudent social distancing measures as conditions improve, Europeans will begin to rebuild the economy. The EU cannot return to how things were before this outbreak and has committed itself to creating a more sustainable future as enshrined in the EU Green Deal.

Unife and the rail supply industry anticipate collaborating with European institutions to create a future sustainable mobility paradigm that leverages rail’s proven green attributes. Together, we can create economic growth, provide citizens with the services they need and create a more equitable international market. As every crisis creates opportunities, this one is our moment to create a more prosperous and sustainable EU.