THE pandemic had a very serious impact on the European rail sector, and in particular on passenger services, with some companies now struggling to survive. At the height of the crisis, passenger numbers fell by up to 90% on many routes.

Between March and September 2020, passenger train-km decreased by 16.9% compared with the same period in 2019 while freight tonne-km fell by 11.1%. In September 2020, total train-km were still 5.5% lower than in September 2019, mainly due to persistently low passenger train-km.

The Covid-19 crisis has also brought to light the strength and resilience of rail, which was essential in keeping supply chains intact. Rail freight punctuality significantly increased during the crisis, as less passenger traffic meant greater capacity.

I am eager for us all to make the most of what we have learned from this period and to maintain this level of performance. We plan to monitor rail border crossing times to bring rail closer to the 15-minute road standard.

The European Commission (EC) reacted quickly in March to safeguard the continuity of transport operations, to keep borders open and to ensure essential transport workers could move as necessary.

We also introduced new flexibility for Covid-related state aid. With our Track Access Charges Regulation, member states can waive, reduce or defer rail infrastructure charges, benefiting all train operators, including open access. However, it is up to member states to make use of this.
Further support will come through the Recovery and Resilience Facility and member states should propose reforms and investments by the end of this month. I expect rail to be among the main beneficiaries of the €672.5bn available for national reforms and investments. Rail infrastructure, public transport and ERTMS are among the priorities, and we are liaising closely with member states to include green investments in their plans.

I am eager for us all to make the most of what we have learned from this period and to maintain this level of performance.

We will also ensure that rail maintains its central place within the new Connecting Europe Facility (CEF). For 2014-2020, rail projects received around 70% of the total CEF transport budget. This should continue in 2021-2027.

The CEF is now more flexible. For example, the end date for implementation has been put back by one year, to December 31 2024, and we have extended ongoing grants by up to 12 months.

Safety, passenger trust and competition are the main challenges facing rail post pandemic. Safety is always our number one priority. During a pandemic, that includes passengers and staff being safe onboard trains and in stations. We have worked with the sector and with the EU Agency for Railways (ERA) to develop and exchange best practices.

I completely understand why confidence in public transport has taken a hit. The European Year of Rail is a real opportunity to bring rail back into the spotlight and to remind potential passengers of its many benefits.
Longer term, we must increase trust by improving quality and making passenger rail more accessible, a key focus of our new Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy.

Many train operators run on a purely commercial basis, without a government subsidy, but they have seen their income evaporate in recent months. We must ensure that these companies survive and can continue to operate once the pandemic is behind us. Our Track Access Charges Regulation aims at reducing the financial burden on all operators.

Rail freight is a leading player in both our Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy and the Green Deal. The strategy foresees rail freight traffic increasing by at least 50% by 2030 and doubling by 2050. Meeting these targets will not be easy. Modal shift has not happened over the last decade despite supportive policies and declarations. Now is the time to be assertive.

Increasing capacity is a good place to start, alongside managing better what we already have, and our strategy sets objectives for both.

We will publish the results of an evaluation of the TEN-T guidelines soon and I expect to put forward a legislative proposal for the revised guidelines this autumn.

We want to better align our TEN-T corridors with our rail freight corridors so that our infrastructure policy and investments target the areas needing both most. In 2022, our focus will shift to international train operation, capacity planning and traffic management.

The new legislation will target three objectives:

  • greening transport infrastructure, in particular through the wide deployment of alternative fuel infrastructure
  • modernising and digitalising transport networks to ensure our infrastructure is more efficient and resilient, and
  • improving interoperability and multimodal integration across the EU and beyond, while ports, airports, freight terminals, passenger hubs and urban nodes also need more attention.

We are not planning any major changes to the network design. Our objective remains to complete the core network by 2030, and the comprehensive network by 2050.

The revision will address how to better coordinate national planning with TEN-T policy, possibly by targeting greater alignment between national infrastructure and investment plans and TEN-T requirements.

Meanwhile the sector must harness the benefits of digitalisation, and quickly. This includes rolling out ERTMS rapidly, as well as openness to other innovative technologies, such as automated train operation, traffic management and digital automatic couplers (DAC). These innovations will cut costs, increase reliability and expand capacity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has by no means reduced the urgency of achieving our Green Deal objectives, nor the importance of rail for our economy.

I expect new technologies enabling customers to trace their goods in real-time to attract new customers. The rail sector has already done a lot of work on this, but we now need to deploy and deliver.

Boosting the price competitiveness of more environmentally friendly transport modes will also help increase rail’s modal share. To identify sustainable options, shippers need information on the environmental footprint of their choices. This year we will examine the idea of a green label for goods transported by rail.

Meeting these ambitious targets will require sustained long-term investment. We will support this through CEF and will push for rail freight to feature prominently in national recovery and resilience programmes.

Fourth Railway Package

October 31 2020 - the day that the technical pillar of the Fourth Railway Package fully entered into force - was an important day for Europe’s rail community. It has significantly simplified procedures and strengthened ERA’s powers. Manufacturers and operators can now make a single application for authorisation across the EU, bringing us much closer to having trains that can run more or less anywhere in Europe.

Correct transposition of the Fourth Railway Package is important, particularly for manufacturers, operators and infrastructure managers. Unfortunately, not all member states were able to complete legislative work by October 2020, and some are still finalising transposition. The EC is monitoring this closely. As of December 15 2020, ERA had authorised over 14,000 vehicles, delivered more than 20 single safety certificates and over 15 ERTMS trackside approvals.

The European Year of Rail is an opportunity to restore confidence in passenger rail.

Under the package, ERA and the EC have new powers to challenge national rules that create operational barriers between railways. In parallel, the rules are being updated to support new digital technologies - next year will see updates for 5G communications, DAC and automatic train operation.

Since market opening under the Fourth Railway Package came into force on December 13, rail operators have been able to offer passenger services in any EU member state. I am hopeful that this will lead to new and innovative rail services.

Safety, passenger trust and competition are the main challenges facing rail post pandemic. Safety is always our number one priority.

To open the market for PSO passenger rail services, the Czech Republic, France, Finland and Slovakia have begun competitive award procedures, and I want to see other countries make the same move.

We are closely following developments in the Netherlands. Although I do not regard awarding more than 90% of national rail passenger services to the incumbent as a positive signal to other market players, direct awards are still possible during the transition period until December 2023.

We are currently at a critical point for ERTMS deployment in Europe and worldwide, which is key to rail digitalisation. By mid-2020, 12% of the Core Network Corridors were operating with ETCS, and 63% with GSM-R. Most trackside deployment delays are due to insufficient national funding, but 86% of the delayed sections are under construction and unlikely to be delayed by more than two to three years.

Trackside deployment must accelerate and go further than having Core Network Corridors and the Core Network equipped with ERTMS by 2030. Instead we should set our sights on an all-encompassing ERTMS network covering major sections of the network by 2040. Only then will we be able to reap the cost savings of removing legacy systems.

We should be much more ambitious harmonising the digitalisation and traffic management of European rail. We need to add the traffic management system to ERTMS - it is currently visible in the name, but not in the product!

Digitalisation is not about data collection, but about access to data and efficient data use, based on harmonised data formats and interfaces. We still have a long way to go to open and link all available railway data for the benefit of the entire sector.

For example, I want to see operators granting passengers access to reliable train booking systems under non-discriminatory conditions. More work is needed to make this a reality while protecting commercial secrets.

European Year of Rail

We are dedicating 2021 to rail to highlight the crucial role it plays in our society. Rail is one of the most sustainable, innovative and safest transport modes we have. Our goal is two-fold: promoting rail and its numerous benefits, but also shedding light on the challenges we must still overcome for rail to realise its full potential. We want to help rail become more attractive, so that more people travel by train, more businesses ship their goods via rail, and more people consider working in the rail industry.

The Covid-19 pandemic has by no means reduced the urgency of achieving our Green Deal objectives, nor the importance of rail for our economy. On the contrary. I believe the resilience shown by rail during the pandemic is yet another reason to put rail in the spotlight. The pandemic has added new dimensions to our Year of Rail. We need to regain the trust of passengers and to look at the role of rail in a sustainable and smart recovery.

Throughout the year, conferences, exhibitions, debates and other activities across the EU will create opportunities to exchange views, ideas and best practices, while our legislative agenda will also reflect the European Year of Rail. By the end of the year, I hope to see a change in mindset towards rail, and more citizens and businesses choosing rail.

We want the European Year of Rail to create momentum as we tackle the challenges and obstacles that continue to prevent the sector from achieving its full potential. We will come forward with new initiatives in 2022, including a review of the rules on capacity planning and management. We will also propose an update to the technical specifications for interoperability to allow rail automation and traffic management to become a reality on cross-border main lines.

I would like to highlight our work with the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking on DAC for freight wagons. Europe is the last continent with screw-couplers and our ambition is to retrofit all of Europe’s 600,000 freight wagons so that they can couple automatically by 2030 at the latest. In 2021, we will select an open, operationally tested and safe European model ready for industrialisation and deployment, and incorporate its requirements in the updated technical specifications for interoperability.

This year will also see us kick off a revision of the Train Drivers Directive. We want to look at the impact of technological progress on the certification scheme for train drivers, and the skills required.

Finally, if we truly want to promote rail, we must connect it better to other modes. In 2022, we will put forward an ambitious proposal to revise the Combined Transport Directive. I can already say that it will cover a wider range of problems than those addressed today and will also seek to boost the competitiveness of intermodal transport.