European flags. Source: EU

New European mobility strategy aims to triple high-speed rail traffic

Source: EU

The European Commission aims to double high-speed rail traffic within ten years and to triple it by 2050. Rail freight traffic must also have doubled by that time. This is stated in the new ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’ from the European Commission that was presented in December 2020. With the plan, the Commission gives substance to sustainable mobility in the European Green Deal.

The long awaited action plan is supposed to guide the mobility sector to achieve a 90 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. The Commission placed the rail sector in an important role towards a smart, competitive, safe accessible and affordable mobility for the future.

“To reach our climate targets, emissions from the transport sector must get on a clear downward trend”, says Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal. “The strategy will shift the way people and goods move across Europe and make it easy to combine different modes of transport in a single journey.”

Rail Sector Milestones

By 2030, the rail sector should double in high-speed rail traffic and a scheduled collective travel of under 500 kilometres should be carbon neutral within the EU. By 2050, rail freight traffic will have doubled and high-speed rail traffic will triple. Additionally, the multimodal Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) will be equipped for sustainability and smart transport with high-speed connectivity and will be operational for the comprehensive network.

“Transport matters to us all and digital technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we move, making our mobility smarter, more efficient, and also greener,” explains Adina Vălean, Commissioner for Transport. “Through the implementation of this strategy, we will create a more efficient and resilient transport system, which is on a firm pathway to reduce emissions in line with our European Green Deal goals.”


According to the European Commission to achieve the 90 per cent carbon reduction by 2050 besides shifting transport to rail, the fossil fuels on rail vehicles must be replaced and decisive action must be taken to shift passengers to travel by trail and put more freight operating on rails.

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ICE 4, Giruno and TGV Euroduplex trains, source: SBB

Rail will also need to be further electrified, if this is not possible in certain locations, the use of hydrogen should be increased. The Commission states that to transform the transport sector into a multimodal system of sustainable services, there will be a need to build a high-quality transport network with high-speed rail services on short-haul distances.

Smart Solutions

The strategy also explains how the rail industry should be increasingly driven by digitalisation and automation. The future of rail will be shaped through innovation and that will be more attractive to passengers. EU places the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) to be a priority that creates a smart rail transport system. This in return places consideration for the Commission to form partnerships with Shift2Rail for further development of rail automation.

The EU will also ensure digital infrastructure such as 5G to offer a wide range of services which in return will provide high levels of automation across different mobility applications. Additionally, having uninterrupted coverage across European corridors with 5G connectivity infrastructure will also need to be achieved. The EU states that the main key is having a functional digital single market.

Year of Rail

Furthermore, the European Year of Rail 2021 offers excellent opportunities for Member States and the rail sector to boost trans-European connections, says the Commission. The implementation of the Fourth Railway Package and thus the opening up of the rail market means that rail operators can better respond to the wishes of the market. The harmonised Europe-wide certification of vehicles also provides cost savings for cross-border trains. In addition, the completion of the TEN-T network, including the high-speed lines, provide better connections on the main corridors.

Improving travelers’ awareness of their rights and the non-discriminatory transmission of travel information, including the provision of tickets, will also make the train more attractive to travellers. In 2021, the Commission will propose an action plan to encourage long-distance and cross-border rail travel. This plan will focus on Member States’ efforts to improve key connections between cities. This is to be achieved through shorter journey times, better capacity management, coordination of timetables, pools for rolling stock and infrastructural improvements for new train connections, including night trains.

Fifteen pilot projects

Platforms or other organisational structures for this purpose should be open to all European member states. Pilots for new lines should be supported with all stakeholders and a combination of public and open access services should be tested in different models for new connections. The aim is to run fifteen pilots by 2030. Finally, buying and using cross-border train tickets must become easier. Therefore, in 2021, the Commission will launch a legislative proposal to enable innovative and flexible tickets for combined modalities.

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SBB freight train, source: SBB

For rail freight transport, the Green Deal states that 75 percent of the domestic freight transport that currently goes by road must be moved to rail and inland shipping. Until now, the share of rail in land freight transport has in fact decreased. Where this was 18.3 percent in 2011., the share of rail was 17.9 percent in 2018.


Among other things, the revision of the State aid rules for railways in order to be able to publicly finance multimodality should turn the tide. Furthermore, there are still many domestic regulations and technical barriers that still hinder performance, the Commission notes. “Rail freight should be seriously promoted through increased capacity, enhanced cross-border coordination and cooperation between rail operators, better overall management of the rail network and the roll-out of new technologies such as Digital Automatic Coupling and ATO.”

The Commission itself will propose revising the rules for the rail freight corridors and the TEN-T core network. Integrate these corridors into European Transport Corridors, with an emphasis on ‘quick wins’ such as train length, loading gauge and improved operational rules. This should happen in addition to filling in the most important missing links and adapting the core network so that it is fully suitable for freight traffic. Furthermore, the Commission wants to improve the rules for the allocation of rail capacity to allow flexible train paths.

Author: Sarah Chebaro

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