by CHRIS BRYANT/ pic by BLOOMBERG
STEPPING off the Eurostar train at London’s glorious St Pancras station is always a thrill, but on a recent Sunday evening, it felt downright radical. Unusually, I’d started my journey more than 10 hours earlier and 600 miles (966km) away in Berlin.
I was attending a summit on decarbonising the economy organised by BloombergNEF and turning up by plane would have seemed hypocritical. Following Greta Thunberg’s example, I booked a train rather than the 90-minute flight.
With the flight shame movement gathering force, this is an increasingly common choice for international travellers and one the rail companies are eager to exploit. From the planet’s point of view, this is great but there’s still a way to go on making long-distance train a consistently convenient and affordable option.
While my journey from Berlin was fine, not everybody has the same experience of this mode of transport.
Even before Thunberg’s emergence, Europe had already been adding a huge amount of highspeed rail (much of it in Spain) and has about 10,000km of operational track. That’s not as much as China, and the trains here aren’t always as punctual as Japan’s shinkansen, but it’s a lot better than the US where even moderately fast trains are rare.
Building the tracks have produced plenty of carbon emissions and it hasn’t been cheap. On average, it takes about 16 years to build a new highspeed line in Europe and some have cost more than €100 million (RM463.98 million) for each minute of travel saved, a report found last year.
Nevertheless, Europe’s railways are potentially a huge asset in the fight against emissions. Unlike cars, much of the rail system is already electrified. And trains have plenty going for them besides their green credentials: Stations are in city centres, you don’t have to pay for baggage, kids travel free and there’s none of the hassle of airport security.
Deutsche Bahn AG even offers childcare on some weekend trains.
Still, if Europe wants to persuade us to shun airports, more work is needed. About one-quarter of Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance trains run late. In France, the TGV has seen passengers lured away by buses and budget airlines. In Britain, frustration with soaring ticket prices and shoddy service has led to calls to re-nationalise the railways.
It’s unhelpful too that Europe’s high-speed lines were largely developed in isolation. That has created a patchwork system which lacks coordination across borders, the European Union’s (EU) external auditors complained last year.
Their report identified 11,000 national rules, which contribute to unnecessary stoppages at borders for technical and staffing changes.
Missed connections are a source of anxiety for rail passengers as bookings often force them to take trains at specific times. Online portals such as Loco2 and Trainline have simplified bookings across multiple operators, but passengers often still have to trawl national train company websites to find the right fare.
Cheap high-speed fares are available if you book ahead, but a multileg international journey can be prohibitively expensive compared to the plane, especially if booked at short notice.
Tougher competition should help fix some of these shortcomings.
From next year, EU reforms will require all state-owned railway companies to open tracks to rival operators. Done right, liberalisation can deliver financial returns for operators and still be popular with passengers. — Bloomberg
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.