Europatakt – a vision for EU-wide rail?

With 2021 being the European Year of Rail, Jon Worth, Professor of European Political and Governance Studies at the College of Europe, presents his vision of EU cross-border rail, Europatakt, in response to the need for an overarching aim of rail policy in the EU.

I have set foot in the Swiss town of Biel/Bienne more often than I care to remember, and for strictly 6 minutes each time. For that is where the Basel SBB-Lausanne InterCity train crosses the Zürich HB-Genève service, and as my trips are always Basel SBB – Genève, that’s where I change. Because Swiss trains run like clockwork, I have never once missed that connection. To make it better still, the trains are normally identical, and always stop on the opposite sides of the same platform – so it is about 10 metres train door to connecting train door.

On the face of it, this is an odd situation – Genève is the second largest city in Switzerland, and Basel the third largest, yet there is no direct train between the two. But if the connection in Biel/Bienne is reliable and simple, that is not a problem. And were something to go wrong, the next train would be there in 30 minutes (or possibly in 60 minutes), from early morning until very late evening.

Compare that to another trip I take regularly – Berlin Hbf to Bruxelles Midi, changing in Köln Hbf. The changing time is 34 minutes – long enough to add a good chunk of time to the total trip – but I have nevertheless missed my connections in Köln many times. The connection is never convenient – it’s never just across the platform – and Köln station has narrow platforms and crowded under-passes. And worse still, if I miss the ICE onwards to Bruxelles Midi, the train – if there is one – the following hour is a Thalys, and persuading them to let me on with a ICE ticket is a hassle (theoretically it’s allowed thanks to Railteam). And worst of all, the last service from Köln to Bruxelles is at 1943 – nowhere near late enough.

Why start with those two stories?

Because Germany has a plan – called Deutschlandtakt – that aims to make the German rail system more like the Swiss one. And German transport minister Andi Scheuer has begun to float the idea of Europeanising the idea as well.

It is not by chance that the Swiss InterCity trains connect in Biel/Bienne. It is thanks to Bahn 2000, a multi-annual plan of infrastructure and rolling stock investments, and timetable changes that dates back to 1987 – the essence of which dominates the way rail in Switzerland is organised to this day. The heart of it is clock-face scheduling and coordinated arrivals and departures at major nodes on the network. Local trains, and trams and buses, are likewise scheduled to match the train schedules.

The aim of the German plan – that is explained in some more detail on the Ministry’s website here – is to reduce journey times by improving connections, and making sure (as is the case in Switzerland) that the majority of trains arrive and depart the major nodes just before and just after the hour or the half hour. A rather horribly designed map of how this is all supposed to look can be found in this PDF.

The advantage of all of this is it gives a combined and cohesive vision of the future of rail in Germany – with the aim initially of implementation by 2030. The overall vision also then determines what infrastructure and rolling stock investments are needed. For example a 2 hour Berlin-Hamburg journey time, and a departure every 30 minutes, can already be implemented, but the 4 hour Berlin-Köln journey time necessary to make Deutschlandtakt work cannot be done currently – so speeding up the Hannover-Bielefeld section is currently being planned. Plus some trips – Stuttgart-Berlin for example – are going to be both speeded up, and are going to likely need a change of train (for Biel/Bienne, read Mannheim) rather than being direct as they are currently.

Now don’t get me wrong – there are many possible downsides to all of this. What works in a small country with massive rail investment and pretty much all trains being turn-up-and-get-on (Switzerland) might not work so well in a country with lower investment, longer distances, and passengers traditionally reserving seats on trains (Germany). Passengers with reduced mobility, or indeed those who find the railway system confusing to use, might not appreciate more changes. And this system makes on-rail competition next to impossible to organise (how would Flixtrain fit into all of this in Germany in the future?)

But as a vision for railway policy, an anchor for how it all should work, Deutschlandtakt is neat – you know what the aim is, and you know how Germany is going to get there. It is, at the very least, coherent. It is, as a vision for rail, more solid than the “we need more trains” sort of puff we get from the European Commission. It is more achievable than a “we want XX% of passengers on the rails” sort of aim, because those never stipulate how to get to that mythical number. And it is less defeatist than the 1990s view that if we just liberalise the lot, the market will sort the whole lot out.

So how about a Europeanising all of this? From Deutschlandtakt to Europatakt?

As well as a train every hour on Berlin Hbf-Köln Hbf, why not a train every hour on Köln Hbf-Bruxelles-Midi, Frankfurt(Main) Hbf-Paris Est, Berlin Hbf-Warszawa Centralna etc. – and from early morning to late evening? For some of these connections the infrastructure exists already, for others changes or improvements might be required. But with the emphasis on journey time and regular services, not necessarily on direct service. Do I need a Mannheim Hbf-Paris Est direct service if I could connect simply in Karlsruhe Hbf onto an hourly Stuttgart Hbf-Paris Est service? Or if an hourly Praha hlavní nádraží-Wien Hbf allowed cross-platform connections at Břeclav for Bratislava hlavná stanica and Budapest Keleti?

The emphasis would be simple: for every InterCity rail trip (even cross border) with a total journey time of 4 hours or less (possibly with a case to be made for up to 6 hours), there should be a departure every hour between 4/5am and 9/10pm, all day, every day. That would not mean a direct train every hour though.

What about longer distances and longer trip times I hear you wonder? The crucial tipping point is somewhere between 4 and 6 hours – longer than that and few people want to take the train. They would normally fly instead. But for that long distance segment a network of night trains is the best bet – point to point, with longer journey times and more possible padding in the timetables. How to accomplish that is explained in this earlier post of mine.

I do not know if the Europeanisation of Deutschlandtakt into Europatakt is right. But the concept of Europatakt would give cross-border rail in the EU a coherent vision for the future, an aim to work towards. And an overarching aim of rail policy in the European Union has been sorely missing until now. Could this be the way forward?

(Note: this piece explicitly does not mention Andi Scheuer’s TEE2.0 plans, that seem to me to be the opposite of what he is advocating in Germany with Deutschlandtakt – very long distance daytime trains complemented by night trains, and without any actual means to make those happen. TEE2.0 looks to me a policy driven by nostalgia and a Kraftwerk song, not a workable plan.)

This article was originally published on the Jon Worth Euroblog and was reposted with permission.

Photo by Rob Dammers on Flickr.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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