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  • Jonathan Cooper
  •  | Katharina Gauland

OFFTRACK: Expensive tickets and the future of passenger transportation in the EU

Delays, long travel times, and expensive tickets. The European Railways passenger transport faces many problems. With plane tickets nowadays much cheaper than the train and more roads being built than tracks, the question arises about how serious the EU is really about making the train the core mean of passenger transport.

As the European Football Championship is taking place, the Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railroad company, presents itself in a bad light. Scottish and Austrian fans arrive too late in Munich, and miss their games. The incident highlights the problems European international train travelers are facing. Despite the EU placing significant importance on Railroad as an integral part of its transport strategy for the future, the European railroad has many flaws. Delays, long travel times, and especially: the price. With train tickets being on average almost 71% more expensive than short-distance flights, it seems no wonder that European cross border travelers are still heavily relying on the plane.

Let's dive into history a little bit

Railways play an essential role in the life of the European Union. It is not just a way to get from point “A” to point “B” but a powerful tool for development and integration. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, when the first railroads were just being laid in Europe, they significantly impacted the state-building of European countries. Historians claim that the development of railroad communication became a key factor in the beginning of territorial integration in Europe. Today, the railways continue to play a significant role in promoting the socio-economic and territorial unity of the European Union by providing efficient connections between regions and countries.

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Jordi Martí-Henneberg, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Lleida







Europe has been developing its Transport Infrastructure Network (TEN-T) for decades. Western Europe boasts some of the densest and most efficient rail networks in the world. The high-speed railways of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain are leading the way in terms of safety, service, and speed. Seven of the ten densest high-speed rail networks are located there.

However, rail networks in other parts of the European Union lag far behind: only half of the EU member states provide speeds of more than 200 km/h, and a third of passenger routes have speeds below 60 km/h. In addition, more than 5% of medium and large cities on cross-border routes do not have rail connections, while within one country, only 0.3% of such city pairs have such connections. This inequality is most pronounced in the eastern EU member states, where train speeds and quality of service are far below Western European standards.

Although the railway network has been a successful asset for Europe, questions arise about its relevance for EU citizens. For some, rail travel has become prohibitively expensive compared to alternative modes of transportation.

According to the latest Greenpeace research, train trips cost twice as much on average as the same journey by plane. The costs for 112 different routes on nine days were analyzed, and 79 journeys were cheaper by plane.



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Lorelei Limousin Senior Climate and Transport Campaigner, Greenpeace European Unit

Railroad tickets in Europe are more expensive than other forms of transportation. In its study, Greenpeace emphasizes the unfairness of the tax system, which contributes to the rising cost of rail tickets. Railways pay value-added tax (VAT), energy taxes and high fares, while airlines, for example, are exempt from most taxes. This significantly differs fares, favoring air travel despite its environmental impact.

Airlines reduce ticket prices by cutting staff costs, particularly by reducing salaries and hiring freelancers. In contrast, railroad transportation costs are rising due to a lack of competition and the need to buy multiple tickets for international travel due to low cooperation between railroad companies.



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If we compare the average ticket price and the average wage rate per hour in Europe, it becomes clear that train travel is costly for EU citizens.





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What are the other railroad obstacles in EU

Also, in addition to high prices, people traveling in the European Union face several other problems, including delays and poor interoperability.

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Europe's Rail, the EU's rail innovation body, approved 35.8 million Euros in funding for eight innovative projects aimed at modernizing the continent's railway infrastructure in November 2023. The initiative, part of Europe's Rail 2022-2 Call for Proposals, involves nearly 100 organizations from 22 countries and targets key areas such as sustainable station design and freight transport efficiency.

In a parallel move, the European Commission is supporting 10 pilot projects to enhance cross-border rail connections, focusing on speed, frequency, and affordability.

These efforts align with the European Union's broader 5.4 billion Euro investment in sustainable transport infrastructure, which includes the construction of the 18-kilometer Fehmarn Belt tunnel between Denmark and Germany.

The projects support the European Green Deal's objective of making Europe the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

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Jordi Martí-Henneberg, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Lleida

How could the situation be improved?

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Lorelei Limousin Senior Climate and Transport Campaigner, Greenpeace European Unit

What we want as Greenpeace is not only a rail network between the big cities and capitals. But we need a dense network of public transport to make sure that there is fair access to this sustainable mobility mode.

Lorelei Limousin

Railroad users also indicate that among the desired changes are improved train punctuality, an effective emergency response scheme, and more reasonable prices.

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Conclusion

The European Railways are far more than just a mean of transportation. The played a crucial role in forming the continent, it’s countries and ultimately the EU of today.

They can be seen as the veins of the continent, connecting countries, metropoles, and nations, welding Europe together into a cultural, political and economical body. 

They represent the modern EU’s Value of Freedom of Movement, laid out in article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. In times of climate change and increasing prices of fossil fuel, the train gains new relevance, and is deeply embedded into the EU’s official strategy of future transportation.

But there are problems, the train Network stagnates, and in 2023 even declined by 6000 kilometers, the prices can’t match and are outcompeted by airtransportation, which remains the cheapest way of international transportation. At the same time, study’s show that the price of tickets is one of the key factors in encouraging people to take the train. The EU tries to tackle this problem by trying to open the market for more competition between the national train companies, improving interoperability, and developing the railroad network. So far, the initiative's successes seem to be limited. This can be lead back to a lack of cooperation and true willingness to change something. The train network across Europe stays underfunded, especially in comparison to investment of public money in road and aviation infrastructure. Flying is still fiscally favored, taking the train in comparison is still fiscally discriminated. The question, if one day the European Railroads will truly unfold their potential remains open.