Tracking Changes: Reimagining EU Rail for a Post-COVID World

Adopted back in 2016, the 4th railway package is due to enter the frame this year. The European rail market is set to be liberalized, operations made safer, and the continent greener. But nobody predicted the breakout of COVID-19. Could the pandemic have put a spanner in the works of the EU’s plans?

Declining numbers of passengers is the overriding effect of COVID-19 on rail transport. Trains have largely been avoided since the virus broke out. Commuters, holiday makers, and other regular users of public transport disembarked for the last time in a long time. In the course of the pandemic, passenger traffic has dropped by 80 percent.

Rail Freight: “An Essential Element”

Rail freight transport, on the other hand, is flourishing. Freight trains supply EU countries with essential goods, including medical products, and production parts. However, freight trains’ strengths lie in the fact that they can transport large quantities at once – without the need for large numbers of personnel. And a single freight train can house as much cargo as about 30 to 50 HGVs. Because of these advantages, rail transport has been proven to be an essential element of a multi-modal transport system during the crisis. But as freight transport’s responsibility grows, the implementation of the pending 4th Railway Package could alleviate some of this pressure.

In the Hour of Need

In December 2016, the EU decided to revise railway regulations. While nobody could have predicted what was to come in 2020, implementation is set to go ahead as planned. The package could even support rail companies throughout the crisis.

In a webinar series held by the virtual International Rail Summit (IRS), various rail industry experts discussed how a 4th Railway Package could be realized. These were important exchanges between industry leaders, at a time when these matters can’t be discussed at conferences or trade fairs. As the EU did as it developed its package, experts focused on two main areas: the technical pillar and the market pillar.

The technical pillar is all about systems, security, and bureaucracy. To give a flavor, the European Commission has decided that from  June 16 2020 the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) will take care of EU approval procedures for rail vehicles. As part of this process, the procedures have been unified, simplified, and have gone digital. No matter in which European country an approval is now applied for – it will be handled by the ERA according to a comprehensive EU-compliant procedure. In addition, laws have been passed to ensure interoperability and optimize rail safety.

Aside from bureaucratic changes, the 4th Railway Package also aims to reorient the market toward a more efficient and sustainable future.

Leveling the Playing Field

The aim is also to make rail transport more competitive, cheaper, and more independent. For example, from 2020, all EU rail companies should be able to offer commercial rail transport services anywhere in the EU – and from 2023, accept public service contracts. The additional competition will automatically increase competition, resulting in lower prices for passengers.

In addition, the 4th Railway Package stipulates that infrastructure managers are impartial so that new entrants to the network are not discriminated against. In addition, in order to counteract distortion of competition – especially between companies operating freely on the market and state-financed companies. Financial processes will become much more transparent.

The Green Deal Remains Top Priority

The 4th Railway Package and how rail is affected by anti-contagion measures brought on by COVID-19 are two extremely relevant industry topics. The overriding goal for the EU, however, is still the European Green Deal. Europe aims for climate neutrality by 2050 – which, given the current climate and the amount of resources used to contain and fight the virus, seems a tough ask.

“The Green Deal must remain a political priority. Rail is definitely there to support the climate goal of the Green Deal and will help to revive the European economy.”
Josef Doppelbauer,
Executive Director, EU Agency for Railways (ERA)

That said, legislative changes brought about by the 4th Railway Package could help rail transport to help Europe achieve its climate targets and make rail transport more attractive. In addition to the expected drop in prices and increase in supply, there are also plans to revive through-the-night train operation. Existing bottlenecks in international rail transport could be relieved as flights up to 800 kilometers (within the EU) discontinue. Switching from airplanes to trains would boost the EU’s chance of achieving its climate targets – and help the rail industry to recover.

On Track Despite Obstacles

How has COVID-19 altered the EU’s roadmap? Well, only slightly is the answer. Instead of June 16, 2020, the deadline for all EU member states that do not manage to implement it in time due to the pandemic was postponed to October 31, 2020. Unless further postponements are planned, this is a minimal change compared to the major changes the world has had to undergo with the start and spread of COVID-19.