In the weekly Follow-up section, we provide a sequel to our best-read stories. This week it was the story about an economic recovery program from a group of German, Austrian and French economists. They advocate, among other things, for a new, ultra-fast European train network. What could this plan mean for public transportation in Europe?
The public debate on aviation and ‘flight shame’ (what the Dutch refer to as ‘vlucht schaamte’, a reference to their embarrassment on flying too often) – has grown over the last two years, says Bert van Wee, Professor of Transport Policy at TU Delft. “This has to do with the fact that we are questioning the environmental impact of aviation more and more often. And that we are traveling across borders much more than we did fifty years ago.”
What Van Wee finds remarkable about the economic recovery program is that it was written by economists. “Usually economists don’t come up with their own visions. They tend to factor in the visions of others in their calculations.”
It really is an all or nothing proposition, according to Van Wee. He suspects that the economists wrote the proposal in the belief that the government should now be investing in a countercyclical way. “If the economy is going badly – as it is now doing because of the corona crisis – the government should be doing more. When things are going well, then they should do less. That’s when they will be able to start saving and build up reserves for when things are not doing so well.”
In Van Wee’s view, the main purpose of the plan is to provoke and inspire. “Assuming that the EU does find it an interesting idea, a few studies will first be carried out into what the most logical designs for the railway networks could be and the likely costs and benefits. As well as, for example, what would this mean in terms of equality or inequality within the EU? These are matters that the EU tends to find interesting. No immediate decision is ever taken on the basis of these kinds of issues.”
Privileges of the aviation industry
Van Wee also finds it extraordinary that the proposal does mention any plans for dealing with aviation. “When it comes to achieving efficiency in train networks, nothing beats addressing aviation. “At present, aviation pays no tax on kerosene, no VAT on international tickets and there is often even indirect support for aviation via the regional airports, Van Wee goes on to explain. “Plus, a number of countries are currently considering or have even decided to financially support the aviation industry. In all actuality, it makes no sense whatsoever to give so many financial privileges to an environmentally unfriendly mode of transport.”
“If we were to deprive aviation of those privileges, then the competitive position of a long-distance train would no doubt become much more favorable,” Van Wee notes. “It’s just incredibly difficult to compete against aviation if you can fly from the Netherlands to Barcelona for less than €100.”
Utilize existing infrastructures
This week, the Dutch Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (Rli) also published a report on European passenger transportation by train. In this report, the Council expressed reluctance to construct any new large-scale infrastructure. The Council mainly recommends making better use of the existing infrastructure. For one thing, an accessible, straightforward, and well-organized booking process would be a vast improvement. One that can compare the routes and prices of the various carriers.
What’s more, they recommend that the rights of passengers are better regulated as well. Van Wee: “Now when I travel from Arnhem to continue my journey with HSL via Rotterdam, and I experience a delay en route to Rotterdam which causes me to miss my connection, what should I do next? This is much better regulated and organized in aviation. All the hassle that is involved, on top of the travel times and travel costs, has got to improve, that’s what the Rli says as well. International train tickets will offer more opportunities then.” Van Wee has himself worked as a supervisor on earlier studies carried out by the Rli.
Cut-throat competitive position
There is a far greater range of airlines in aviation than there are train carriers. “Competition is fierce in aviation,” Van Wee says. “If KLM doesn’t keep up with the times, lacks a good information system, does not offer good service, is too expensive, has travel times that are too long, and would fly to destinations where people no longer want to go anymore – then they would simply go bankrupt.” These incentives are non-existent for train services. That is why the Rli recommends promoting new international transportation services.
As far as the Rli is concerned, there is no need for a new network, as there are plenty of opportunities to make better use of the network capacity that already exists. For example, by setting out conventionally established timetables more intelligently. Van Wee: “De Rli actually says that there is a lot of potential in a European high-speed network and that we should not automatically look for that in the construction of expensive railways. On 1 July, the Rli chair Jan Jaap de Graeff presented the proposal to State Secretary Stientje van Veldhoven (of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management I&W). Van Wee: “Whether or not recommendations are translated into policy depends on if anyone in the ministry feels called upon to work with them. Usually, you have to have a Minister or State Secretary on board who also finds this interesting.”
According to Paul Elhorst, Professor of Spatial Econometrics at the University of Groningen, if the economists’ plan were to go a step further, it would still be quite a puzzle to figure out these kinds of railway lines. “The stations that this train stops at are places which should be in profitable areas. That has an impact on the countryside. I live in Groningen and am able to take a train to Amsterdam in order to board the high-speed line to Paris. It’s possible that some regions will benefit a lot while others won’t at all. You always have to take this into account. For example, I don’t see the residents of Zeeland, Limburg, and Groningen benefiting from that network in the near future.”
“In order to make this profitable, you need enough passengers to travel on those trains. This does imply European capitals. People who live one or two hundred kilometers from those stations can board that line, of course. But it should not be located too far away either. That makes it a very complicated puzzle to work out because otherwise, you end up spending €1500 billion on projects for lines that would barely be used at all.”
Van Wee believes that it is technically feasible. “The existing railway tracks for high-speed trains can also cope with speeds of 250 to 300 kilometers per hour at the moment.” Van Wee also thinks that it’s a good thing that there a proposal hasn’t been made for magnetic tracks. “This technology is completely different and one that is less readily integrated into the existing tracks.”
In their report, the economists mention the ambitions of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. China already has an extensive high-speed network. Elhorst: “In China, they have millions of cities on the east side. There, any city soon counts five million or more inhabitants. Then you very quickly have enough people who make use of that network. Amsterdam doesn’t even have a million residents.”
Obviously, the decision-making process in China is completely different than here, Van Wee adds. “The national government there can just do this if they so choose. If you happen to live in a village where you suffer tremendously from that type of railway line, and there is no train stop either, you can make your protests known. But, as a rule, they will not listen to you. That’s very different in comparison to Western democracies.”
Environmental agencies’ involvement
Problems with international train connections were identified decades ago, Van Wee continues. Over the course of time, various reports have appeared. Like the one in May 2018. On behalf of the independent environmental agencies Natuur en Milieufederatie Noord-Holland, Greenpeace and Natuur & Milieu, the engineering firm Royal Haskoning DHV researched the possibilities of replacing short European flights of up to 750 kilometers with train journeys. The engineering firm then came up with similar recommendations to those of the Rli. Van Wee: “Not that there’s been no progress made at all, but it’s going agonizingly slowly. I don’t believe that anything will change soon as a consequence of the economists’ plan.”
As a researcher, Van Wee does find it worthwhile that there is a plan in place. “Then I tend to think: Let’s see what the pros and cons of this are. Will it substantially reduce air traffic and still lead to satisfactory travel times? As a taxpayer, I would be shaking my head a few times and asking if this won’t cost a lot of money. It is likely to cost far more than it actually brings in?”