January 3, 2011
Over the coming 30 years the volume of intra- European passenger and goods traffic is expected to rise substantially, due to more intensive economic activity and leisure time.
Most of the extra traffic will turn to the roads, thereby causing more saturation, traffic jams, C02 emissions and other environmental nuisances.
The top priority for European transport policy makers should therefore be shift a bigger share of traffic to the rail. This goes for both long-distance and commuter traffic in metropolitan areas.
Thanks to high speed trains linking European metropolitan area and suburban transit systems it is easier to respond to this challenge for passenger than goods traffic.
High speed trains have a competitive advantage over the road:
They are at least twice as fast, transport six times as many passengers per hour (12.000 over 2.200), emit much less C02 and require less than half the space needed for passenger transport by road.
Due to these advantages high-speed trains have re-conquered substantial market shares from air and road travel across Europe, especially between the densely populated regions of Western Europe. Between Paris and Brussels trains have completely replaced planes and most of the automobiles. Between Brussels or and London trains are steadily gaining ground thanks to the tunnel.
By 2020, Europe will have a high-speed rail system of more than 8 000 km of in operation, the second¬-longest network on earth. Only China’s network will be longer, about 10 00 km. Europe’s top priority should be to extend the existing network to all metropolitan areas like Lisbon, Warsaw, Prague, Athens and Istanbul and thus offer business travellers an alternative to the plane for trips up to 1000 km.
To that end, the EU needs to agree on the priorities for the next 15 years, putting the emphasis on densely populated regions with heavy traffic, and develop innovative financing schemes through the European Regional Development Fund.
In parallel, European cities should engage in long-term programmes of expanding efficient, low-cost means of public transport, subways, trams and busses. This will be the only way to prevent more time- and energy- consuming traffic jams during the daily rush hours and cities from suffocating. Though municipal traffic is neither a national nor a European competence urban traffic constitutes one of the major common European challenges. The 27 member countries should therefore act in unison and close coordination, exchanging best practices on technology and finance and benefitting from financial support of the European Regional Development Fund.
Transferring more lorries to the rail will be much more difficult to achieve. Lorries have a unique competitive advantage over trains by being able to ship their freight from point to point. Charging lorries or containers on trains will generate only limited advantages in time and delivery comfort, and only for distances beyond 1000 km.
Still, in view of increasing high-way congestion forwarding companies should be induced to switch part of their freight to the rail, which will have to offer punctual and cost-efficient services.
To meet this challenge, the EU Commission has started organising a high-speed system for goods transport by rail along six major trans-European freight corridors that might be able to handle up to 20 percent of the European freight volume.
Transferring 20 percent of the European freight volume back to the rail would a major performance and relief to Europe’s overburdened highways.
But getting the infrastructure and logistics straight will not be sufficient for a more substantial shift from the road to the rail. Road transport must also bear the full cost of the environmental and climate-related damage it causes, which would make it relatively more expensive.
To that end, the EU should take two actions:
First, calculate gasoline, gas and diesel taxes on the basis of their CO2 emissions. This will make diesel more expensive compared to gasoline and gas and induce haulage companies to switch to gas and combined rail-road haulage.
Second, introduce variable road-user fees for trucks according to the traffic density, with fees next to zero when highways are empty and almost prohibitive during rush hours. This should ease traffic congestion in times of rush hour traffic.
In conclusion, Europe will need to focus much more attention to making its transport system sustainable. This requires a comprehensive approach, involving all member states and means of transport.
The focus should be on encouraging more investments in low-C02 emission transport like high-speed trains and urban transit systems. An EU-wide system of high-speed passenger and long-haul freight trains must become a reality before 2030.
The EU should be the driving force behind these developments, through an extensive exchange of experience, standard setting, financing and coordinating action.
Brussels, 28.12.10 Eberhard RheinAuthor : Eberhard Rhein