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Are trains making a comeback?


As a virtuous mobility solution, the humble train is back in style. While France is considering closing down many small railway lines, other European countries such as Austria and Germany have successfully revitalized their train networks in response to environmental concerns.

Transportation by train seems to be back on track. Rail travel may have lost steam over the last six years but, according to French rail and road transportation regulator Arafer, use of trains in France surged 6.5% in 2017, bringing their share in the domestic mobility mix to 10%. This increase in use is chiefly attributable to a move toward greater environmental responsibility.

“Flygskam” encouraging more people to take the train

59% of French people say they would be willing to travel by train instead of flying. According to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), an airplane emits 300 times more CO2 than a train traveling the same distance. Trains are often cheaper, too: for example, a rail ticket from Paris to Marseille costs just over €100, while flying would cost €120 and driving nearly €200. Coined in Sweden, “flygskam” refers to the feeling of “environmental guilt” associated with taking airplanes. More and more people are joining the movement, particularly in Scandinavian countries. And train travel is benefiting hugely from the trend, since it’s the preferred mode of transportation for this new generation of activists. In France, the “Oui au train de nuit” collective has launched a movement to limit global warming by promoting night trains, which it sees as the transportation solution of the future.

The success of Austrian night trains

Austrian national rail company ÖBB is a benchmark in this area. It is the only European company to offer a diverse network of 26 night railway lines, with its Nightjet trains taking passengers to destinations such as Rome, Venice, Zurich, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Zagreb. The project began in October 2016, when ÖBB decided to purchase and restore German night trains that had become obsolete. The trains are now consistently at least 60% full, and the sleeping cars are often booked up several weeks ahead. More than 1.4 million passengers took Nightjets in 2018, and the numbers just keep increasing, leading the Austrian company to order 13 new night trains this year. As well as protecting the environment and helping passengers rediscover the joys of travel, part of the appeal of night trains is their affordability. To go from Berlin to Zurich, for example, users pay only €29 for a trip that’s three hours and 40 minutes longer than a high-speed train, which is around ten times the price.

France on the other side of the tracks

Just a few years ago there were still more than 60 night train lines in France. But in 2016, only two remained. It’s the same story for small lines, which were deemed too expensive to maintain and not profitable enough. Some 30 of them have been closed down over the last ten years. Arafer reported that the length of track in use decreased by 12% between 1997 and 2017. The Spinetta report on the future of rail transportation in France (2018) suggested that maintaining small railway lines was a French idiosyncrasy and that it would be best to phase them out.

Germany relaunches small railway lines

The trend in France makes the German example all the more compelling. With a view to making villages more accessible, developing economic activity in the countryside and reducing CO2 emissions from road traffic, public authorities in Germany have been reviving small train lines for several years now. Between 2002 and 2016, the number of regional trains increased by 33% and the number of passengers rose by 50% over roughly the same period.

In the Frankfurt region, where 80 lines were abandoned in the early 2000s, the German government will be investing €100 million every year until 2024 to get eight lines back up and running. With accessible train lines and lower travel costs, people living in villages are using their cars less and less.

Could the EU be the solution to save small train stations?

In the United Kingdom, the “Campaign for Better Transport” movement is calling for public policy to reopen certain railway lines. On a larger scale, the European Union (EU) could be the key to safeguarding small stations. For example, the EU used its European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to help fund the new Redon station in Ile-et-Vilaine, France, turning it into a multimodal interchange set to welcome 950,000 passengers in 2020.

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