I was thinking about it, when I took the night train from Prague to Ghent last week. What a nice proposal from Europe, to give every 18-year-old an Interrail-pass. It can allow the discovery of Europe and its the diversity. At the same time it is a refreshing way for Europe to promote the railways in times of need for an effective climate policy.
Should such a pass be free? It doesn’t seem necessary, you could attach a token amount to it so that it becomes a conscious choice for every youngster to make. Such a pass also does not dismantle all the barriers for adolescents in poverty of course, you have to eat and spend the night somewhere during your journey too.
A crucial question in respect to the proposal is whether the European railways still offer an adequate train service for adolescents to travel smoothly through Europe. When I read a historical novel about Europe from decades or even a century ago, or talk with somewhat older adults about their student days, I am amazed about how smoothly the train used to bring people between cities like Madrid, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, or Budapest. Night trains play a fundamental role in this: they allow not losing any working days or holidays because of long journeys. A fabulous network of night trains in fact ensured a connected Europe. Over the past few years a lot of night trains have disappeared, and this process is accelerating all the time. The night train from Prague was completely full last week. Unfortunately this night line disappears in December. Indeed, Deutsche Bahn has stopped all night trains; luckily the Austrian railway company will take over a few lines.
Why does this happen? Cheap flights play a role of course, due to the fact that the European Union does not succeed in taxing kerosene, and allows regional governments to subsidise local airports. But that is not the entire story. Many people continue to prefer taking the train for various reasons, be they ecological, medical, or out of fear of flying. Their total number should not be underestimated; last year at Deutsche Bahn, more than a million people took a night train. And as said before, within the context of climate policy, we need a shift from car and airplane to efficient and eco-friendly train connections.
The advent of the high-speed trains definitely redrew the rail-scape. In the old days, you would, for instance, take a night train to Avignon or Berlin; today this is possible within a reasonable time-frame during the daytime. However, high-speed trains do not take you everywhere, nor do they provide an answer to longer distances like travelling from Brussels to Madrid or Budapest. Night trains remain an indispensable part of travelling through Europe by train. You would thus expect that the European Commission, in accordance with their promotion of the Interrail pass, would encourage night trains. Unfortunately the situation is quite the opposite. As we know, the European Commission has been a great advocate of liberalisation and introducing more market mechanisms in the railway sector. And it is precisely this policy that leads to the loss of night trains, as they disappear one by one. This is due to at least two reasons. European policy states that governments can only support domestic transportation. This means that a lot of international trains, also day trains by the way, have disappeared. The second reason is the compulsory separation of the organisation that manages the infrastructure and the one that manages the actual trains. In other words, night trains also have to pay for using the tracks in each country they pass through, which increases the costs and the administrative burden. In Belgium this resulted in night trains disappearing completely; in other countries we observe the same negative phenomenon. It is rather ironic that train tracks are used less and less at night for passenger traffic because of the so-called efficiency of market mechanisms.
This should make us think: do we leave it up to the market to decide what services we can enjoy as citizens? Or do we, in fact, find it important – out of societal objectives like climate policy – that the government invests in services that cannot be self-sufficient? We do not have to look very far for examples of the latter: no domestic public transport company breaks even. Otherwise there would only be trains, trams, and buses between large cities during rush hour. That is also the trap of liberalisation: private companies run off with the most attractive transport lines and the government has to bear the rest (without the revenue from those lucrative lines).
This analysis brings us to the ironic, if not cynical situation that, precisely in the year when the European Commission supports a proposal for adolescents to discover Europe by train, many of the remaining night trains will disappear. Maybe the European Commissioners should spend their Christmas holidays with a Railpass – they might acquire a taste for the charm and ease of the night train, and decide to draft a forward-looking policy for our railroad system. Otherwise the current refreshing proposal risks being a superfluous measure.
This article was originally published on De Standaard.