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By designating 2021 as the European Year of Rail, the European Commission is seeking to focus attention on the environmental, economic, commercial and cultural benefits of rail, and highlight its role in supporting sustainable mobility.
On March 4, just before Covid-19 brought much of Europe’s international traffic to a standstill, the European Commission officially proposed to declare 2021 as the European Year of Rail. And despite everything that has happened since then, the initiative is still on track. The European Parliament and Council are now entering the last phase of discussions before formally adopting our proposal. And with 2021 rapidly approaching, it is time to start getting ready.
Our initiative has not surprisingly been given a warm welcome by stakeholders within the railway sector, but the real purpose of the European Year of Rail is to promote the mode beyond its usual supporters. We want to celebrate rail, to highlight its potential to make transport more sustainable, and to accelerate much-needed modernisation so that rail wins more passengers and freight customers. We want to see more recognition of the role that rail can play as a tool to link regions. We want people to travel by rail to discover more of the EU. And we want the rail sector to become a more attractive place to work.
A year to celebrate rail
The Commission’s aim when launching every ‘European Year of …’ is to put an important topic in the spotlight, to raise awareness of associated challenges and opportunities, and to encourage debate throughout the European Union. So just as 2018 was all about cultural heritage, 2021 will focus on all aspects of rail.
While the benefits of railways as a sustainable, safe and innovative transport mode are obvious to the rail community, and certainly to me, it is clear this enormous potential is not reflected by rail’s current position in our society, nor our economy as a whole. Rail’s share of passenger land transport is currently less than 8%, although the figure is growing. The market share for freight is twice as large, but despite everyone’s best efforts it has not increased in recent years.
With the European Green Deal putting sustainability at the heart of EU policymaking, and transport today accounting for a quarter of all EU greenhouse gas emissions, rail has a very significant role to play in the coming years, providing cleaner and sustainable mobility.
We are already seeing renewed interest among young travellers, climate-conscious companies and, increasingly, politicians. The European Year of Rail is intended to build on this and create momentum, but we rely very much on the railway community and public authorities at all levels to make the year a success.
Various key players have already been in touch to see how they can get involved, and we are currently looking into a number of potential initiatives during the year. For example, Portugal is planning to host a rail event in the first half of 2021, when it will be holding the EU Presidency.
By dedicating this European Year to rail, we want to encourage Europeans to choose rail more often, and we also want to see EU businesses taking rail into account when planning their everyday operations — for both freight and passenger transport.
Rail connects people and regions all across the EU, and has much to contribute to a future-proof transport system. It is also a major industrial sector, with European suppliers holding a world-leading position. The EU is the rail supply industry’s largest net exporter in the world, and plays a major role in terms of driving innovation in the manufacturing market. Last but not least, rail has been a source of artistic inspiration for many years.
Cross-cutting projects could create new links between tourism, innovation, jobs and skills in a changing world, boosting industrial competitiveness as well as cultural and industrial heritage.
Fig 1. Rail has much to offer in providing safer and more sustainable mobility across Europe for both passenger and freight transport.
What to expect in 2021
Throughout the European Year of Rail, we will see conferences, exhibitions, debates and various other activities across the EU — creating opportunities to exchange views, ideas and best practices at EU, national, regional and local levels. The format of these events will inevitably depend on the evolution of the ongoing pandemic. Some might take place virtually or in a hybrid form, but 2020 has proven that this does not necessarily impact on the quality of discussions. Online or offline, the Year of Rail will create impetus, and I am counting on everyone in the railway community and beyond to use it to the best of their abilities.
From our side, we intend to capitalise on the momentum to launch several legislative initiatives. These will include new proposals on the rail freight corridors and their links with ports and terminals, as the main arteries for moving goods across the trans-European network; on how to make better use of capacity along the busiest corridors; and on greening freight transport more generally.
On the research side, the future European joint undertaking that is due to succeed Shift2Rail should start work during 2021.
Next year will also be the first year of full implementation for the Fourth Railway Package, the objective of which remains the completion of the Single European Rail Area. We must make it possible for the same company and the same train to operate anywhere in Europe without technical, legal or operational obstacles.
Our overall guidance with regards to new initiatives stems from the objectives set out in the European Green Deal, as well as our Strategy on Sustainable & Smart Mobility that the Commission will be presenting towards the end of 2020. The Year of Rail will also build on existing policies and initiatives, so we can expect to hear more about rail’s role in tourism, for example.
Our proposal for the European Year of Rail is particularly aimed at boosting rail projects with a European dimension, and I am looking forward to the wide array of ideas and initiatives which we can support to make rail more attractive.
For example, we will be looking into the revitalisation of cross-border night trains, where we are currently seeing a resurgence of public and political interest in a potential renaissance. EU law, when implemented correctly, will support this development by ensuring competitive market conditions and removing barriers for cross-border train operation.
In the same vein, ticketing is key to making cross-border rail travel more attractive and accessible, linking the provision of information and ticket purchasing for different legs of a journey.
From the many initiatives that await us in 2021, I would like to highlight one project in particular that illustrates how diverse the activities under the Year of Rail will be. The international arts festival ‘Europalia’ will dedicate its 2021 edition to rail. From what I have seen so far, we can certainly expect a lot of creativity — from exceptional art installations and exhibitions to performances — that underline both the rich history of rail in Europe as well as addressing contemporary questions, all revolving around trains and tracks.
The European Year of Rail is expected to inspire more young people to travel by rail to explore the various member states.
The coronavirus effect
When we first discussed the possibility of dedicating a European Year to rail, the world was very different — as dramatic as that may sound. While the idea for this initiative stems from pre-pandemic times, Covid-19 has by no means reduced the urgency of achieving our Green Deal objectives, nor the importance of rail for our economy. On the contrary, rail has demonstrated its resilience and its ability to ensure the provision of essential services, even during the peak of a pandemic. I believe that is yet another reason to put the rail mode in the spotlight.
If anything, the pandemic has added new dimensions to our Year of Rail. We need to regain the trust of passengers in collective transport, and we need to look at the role of rail as part of a smart and sustainable recovery. The European rail sector has been hit hard by Covid-19, but operators and manufacturers remain highly competitive on a global scale. Our European Year should help everyone to (re-)focus on the many benefits of the rail mode.
Finally, yet just as importantly, the European Year of Rail will be an opportunity to focus on the challenges and obstacles that remain to Europe’s railways realising their full potential. When all eyes are on rail, it should be very apparent where further progress is needed.
The year will generate many opportunities for the key players to come together and discuss how to best address remaining challenges. I am confident that the discussions that we will have during 2021 will be fruitful, laying the foundations for future co-operation at all levels and enabling rail to live up to all of our expectations.
So, in a nutshell, that is what we have planned. I hope that our vision for the European Year of Rail 2021 will inspire you to ‘hop on the train’, and get involved in one way or another.
Further information on the European Year of Rail 2021 can be obtained from MOVE-C3-EUROPEAN-YEAR-RAILfirstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared on www.railwaygazette.com
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