No sign of modal shift to rail in new European market monitoring

Frankfurt (Main) railway station, source: Deutsche Bahn (DB)

Between 2015 and 2018, the market share of rail compared to other land-based passenger transport in the EU has been stuck at around 7.8 percent. Although there has been a slight annual growth of 2.5 percent in rail traffic, a modal shift towards rail has not occurred, neither in passenger nor freight transport. These are the findings of a monitoring report of the European rail market presented in January.

Although rail traffic in terms of passenger kilometres has increased over the three-year period, on average annually by 2.5 percent for passengers and by 4.1 percent for freight between 2015-2018 in the 27 EU-countries, the market share of land-based passenger traffic remains low with just under eight percent. This is shown in the recent 7th Rail Market Monitoring report (RMMS) by the European Commission.

Passenger volumes decreased only in Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece and Croatia. Within total volumes, both the domestic and international segments increased. In most countries stagnating, a number of countries also reported a decrease in international passenger volumes, of which more significantly in Greece, the Netherlands and Norway.


Modal shift?

Passenger car transport dominates total passenger land transport within the EU, with a share consistently higher than 80 percent between 2007 and 2018. Throughout the same period, the rail mode share rose slightly from 7.3 percent to 7.8 percent, while tram and metro’s modal share went from 1.6 to 1.7 percent. At the same time, the modal share of bus and coach transport fell from 10.5 to 9.1 percent.

The European Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking aims to support modal shift by making rail more attractive to users. For passengers, this focuses on more travel options, more comfort and improved punctuality. As data over the last decade shows, a shift to rail is indeed not happening on its own.

Between 2015 and 2018 in particular, the modal share of passenger cars in EU27 land passenger transport increased from 81 percent to 81.4 percent, whereas rail increased from 7.6 percent to 7.8 percent, with significant differences across countries.

Between 2015 and 2018, rail’s modal share increased the most in Poland, Czechia, Austria and Estonia, and decreased the most in Denmark, Hungary and Croatia. Looking at each country, in 2018, Austria, the Netherlands and France were the only countries where rail had a share of more than ten percent.

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 mainly decreased, and was 18.7 percent in 2018.

High-speed rail

The new European mobility strategy aims to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and triple it by 2050. In the Rail Market Monitoring report, there is no separate data on the amount of high-speed rail traffic, only on the length of the high-speed network. The EU high-speed network increased by almost 1.300 kilometres between 2015 and 2019, an increase of 17 percent.

Perceived obstacles that are mentioned in a document supporting the RMMS, include the lack of easy ticketing options for passengers, the availability of suitable rolling stock, high infrastructure access charges for cross-border long-distance services and a lack of coordination in the setting-up of cross-border train paths. At the request of the European Parliament, in 2020 the Commission commissioned a study on cross-border long-distance rail passenger services, with a special focus on night train services. The results of the study, which will focus on the obstacles for the setting-up and running of cross-border passenger services, are expected mid-2021.

International rail

The largest rail passenger markets are in Germany, France, United Kingdom and Italy. 93 percent of all passenger kilometres in the current 27 EU countries stem from domestic passenger services. The proportion of rail in international passenger services ranged between five percent (year 2010) and seven percent over the entire period in the EU. International passenger kilometres increased by two percent annually in the EU.

In most countries the volume of international train passengers stagnated, but a number of countries also reported a decrease in international passenger volumes, of which more significantly in Greece, the Netherlands and Norway. In Romania (around a staggering 100 percent) and Spain (around 50 percent) there was the most increase.

Unsurprisingly, considering its size, Luxembourg is the country with the most internationally oriented rail passenger market (29 percent of the total passenger traffic), whereas Greece has the lowest proportion of international passenger travel (0.2 percent).

Private operators

Officially, new entrants into the market have a 14 percent share of all rail passenger transport, but according to AllRail, l, the representing body for independent passenger rail companies, this is ‘whitewashing’. “If one subtracts the foreign subsidiaries of state incumbents (such as Abellio, Arriva and Keolis), what remains is only about seven percent of passenger trains run by truly independent, privately owned operators.”

AllRai calls for a European quota for the share of independent operators, saying that by 2030, 50 percent of all passenger trains must be provided by privately owned operators. AllRail President Dr Erich Forster states: ”Otherwise we face the real and serious threat of the re-monopolisation of European passenger rail. If this happens, then passenger rail will remain small and its contribution to the EU Green Deal will be a spectacular failure.”

Market access

On 30 October 2020, EU Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager said: “Competition in the rail passenger transport sector can drive prices down and service quality up to the benefit of consumers. It benefits the environment too as travellers shift to rail in line with the Green Deal objectives.”

Fair access to the market for all operators will allow for the introduction of new, multimodal offers and increased choice for passengers and businesses. To this end, the market pillar of the Fourth Railway Package introduced competitive tendering as the standard procedure for attributing public service contracts, with a transition period until December 2023. It also opened access to commercial provision of rail domestic passenger services, starting with the 2021 timetable.

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Author: Esther Geerts


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