Under the banner of the European Year of Rail (EYR), the European rail industry prepared for a year in which the train could present itself as “the most sustainable, innovative and safe” means of transport. An ideal opportunity to rapidly give shape to the ambition of the European Commission and the member states to improve national and international rail links, also in view of the issue of climate change.
The EYR will come to an end this spring. In this article we consider what results have been achieved so far and how the new European rail policy could contribute to achieving the Netherlands’ international rail ambitions.
Immediate results limited so far
In addition to the growing political and public interest in sustainability and the climate, the EYR has helped to increase the popularity of rail travel. It should be noted in this context, however, that this result seems to have been achieved mainly among politicians and policymakers and to a lesser extent among the general public. In the Netherlands, apart from posters in stations and 'the climate train to Glasgow', the EYR seems hardly to have caught the headlines.
Even where there have been specific improvement efforts, it is difficult to pinpoint clear successes. Short-term results linked to the EYR appear to be related mainly to stepping up existing initiatives. Examples of which include cooperation between European infrastructure managers to create better framework conditions for high-speed international rail links. It is also likely that the traction created by the EYR programme has had an impact on the development of specific proposals by the group of EU member states that have committed to improving international rail transport.
 The International Rail Passengers Platform.
“Decisiveness and implementation are now necessary, which is why the Netherlands must ensure that at least two of the 15 announced European pilots for cross-border trains focus on routes to the Netherlands. - Wim van de Camp, Dutch Ambassador for the European Year of Rail
Fertile basis created for some short-term improvements
In our paper ‘Naar een European Year of Rail met impact’ [Towards a European Year of Rail with impact] at the end of 2020, we presented three themes which needed attention. Recent discussions with key players in the rail sector, including Wim van de Camp, the Netherlands’ Ambassador for the EYR, have made it clear that all three of these topics are still very relevant. Stakeholders report that little action has been taken concerning our suggestions on stepping up the harmonisation of systems to promote regional cross-border rail links. From the perspective of both customer convenience and reducing the operating costs of carriers and commissioning clients, there is still much to be done. However, this often involves large investment sums with long lead times and the EYR has not been able to make much of a difference there. Although the outlook for the other two themes: improving the air-rail connections on offer and international ticketing, does appear to have improved.
 Berenschot, 2020.
Exporting the air-rail approach
The Netherlands was one of the first European member states to develop an Action Agenda on initiatives aimed at replacing air travel (or part of a journey) by rail travel. Since then several member states have imposed restrictions on internal flights, mainly on routes where there is a good rail alternative. The approach adopted in the Netherlands, in which the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and representatives of both the rail and aviation sectors together drew up a comprehensive vision and plan, has so far not been seen anywhere else in Europe. This is also partly why there are few, if any, examples of new cross-border air-rail initiatives.
Over the past year modest progress has been made in the Dutch context on the improvements identified in the Action Agenda which will provide better and more dependable connections between air and rail transport. There is a fertile basis not only to accelerate implementation in the Netherlands, but also to export the concept to other European member states. Only in this way will this initiative have an impact across Europe.
 Action Agenda for train and air travel, Berenschot 2020.
Speeding up improvements in international ticketing
During the EYR the call to more rapidly improve customer convenience in buying a ticket for international rail travel has become increasingly stronger. The ability to find fares and tickets, as well as to book well in advance, needs to be improved to meet travellers’ expectations in this context. The cooperating European railway companies, united in the CER, have taken up this gauntlet. Where positions and interests have long stood in the way of making real improvements, the CER's plans now show considerable ambition. It is open to question, however, whether they go far enough and will be fast enough.
Growing interest in the subject of ticketing, also on the part of the European Commission, has spurred the parties into action. The ambition stated in the framework of the EU Green Deal of doubling the number of cross-border rail travellers in Europe by 2030 calls for rapid action. Unconventional partnerships will probably also be required to find solutions. This means that the European Commission and individual member states will have to continue to be involved in this for the foreseeable future. Not just in continuing to emphasise its urgency, but also in creating the right conditions.
 Community of European Railways.
The new European rail policy offers the Netherlands opportunities for real improvements
The European Commission sees a key role for the transport sector in achieving its climate goals. Major changes in European rail policy have been made to enable rail transport to make a significant contribution to this. For example, using regulations and resources more actively as instruments to create a European network of high- speed train links. Besides this, an Action Package of measures has been drawn up to improve international connections and, in this context, 15 dedicated pilots have been launched.
During the EYR, together with other member states, the Netherlands has shown considerable ambition in terms of international rail links. The policy framework and resources now made available by the European Commission will also make it possible for suitable long-term improvements to be made in the next few years. For example, further to several years of research, it is now clear that investment decisions should be taken in line with the aim of significantly speeding up and improving the rail links with Germany. Where there are longer lead times for infrastructure to be built, the pilots offer opportunities for improvements in the short term. The Netherlands is the starting point and end point of many European transport corridors. Combined with its expressed intentions for international passenger transport, it is only natural that the Netherlands should subscribe to several pilots.
During the European Year of Rail it has become clear that the European Commission is embracing rail transport more firmly than ever before. Interaction at European, national and regional or local levels remains as necessary as ever to achieve results. A number of the improvements discussed above will require the active involvement of central government. Apart from this, there are great opportunities for local and regional authorities to speed up the development of their international rail travel ambitions, in line with the European priorities.
 Revision of the TEN-T policy and its associated CEF funding instrument.
Please contact Tim Geraedts via email@example.com if you have any questions about this article.
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