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  1. Analysis
February 28, 2008

Euro Policy: Balancing the Rail Budget

European transport policy is decided in Brussels, but is this taken into account when making changes and upgrades? Howard Johnston wonders whether the environment – or saving money – is at the top of the political agenda.

By cms admin

Rigid, coherent policies on public transport that will be adopted to the letter are sadly not the trademark of the European Commission. While billions are spent in Brussels to ensure that all 27 member countries toe the line, are the bureaucrats sure anyone is really listening?

What is it that dictates whether we get better public transport – is it a desire to protect the environment, or is it simply down to money?

Some cities have made spectacular progress, and we shall soon see whether more will follow. March 2008 will mark the conclusion of consultation on a groundbreaking but word-heavy Green Paper policy document ‘Towards a New Culture for Urban Mobility’, which has blown open the debate on how to achieve a car-less society, a vision of free-flowing, safe and secure transport for all.

The EU says it is prepared to put public money into sharing good practice (including loans and access to regional funds), but it cannot ultimately go very far because its constitution allows members a substantial degree of freedom to run their own lives as they see fit.

This perhaps explains why we see multi-billion Euro investment in Spain (high-speed lines), France and the Netherlands (fast lines and tramways), and Germany (tram-trains). Even though their budgets are more restricted, light rail upgrades across most of the former Eastern bloc are commonplace, despite the newly discovered freedom to purchase a motor car. The jury is still out on UK policy, because the government seems reluctant to approve expansion, even though its cities are gridlocked and the rail network is bursting at the seams.

Two thirds of European citizens surveyed believe that it is governments that are stifling progress though weak leadership. According to a recent opinion poll, 90% think that the traffic situation in their area should be improved. Semi-permanent congestion, and delays and other damage caused are costing the EU 1% of its GDP. t much? Don’t you believe it – 1% adds up to a staggering €100bn!


Several cities are already proud of their achievements. Berlin, capital of Germany with over 4.4 million residents, has the lowest car ownership in the country, thanks to its excellent public transport network. Passengers waiting at tram stops can view screens displaying accurate, real-time information on their route, and on connecting buses. To widen the appeal of public transport, the screens may soon also be positioned in other public places.

“Semi-permanent congestion, and delays and other damage caused are costing the EU 1% of its GDP.”

Athens, with a population of 3.5 million population, was spurred into action by staging the 2004 Olympic Games. The city constructed a tramway and suburban railway in time for the event, and extended the already enlarged Metro to the new International Airport.

All three of these travel options have proved their tremendous worth, reducing the notorious all-engulfing Athens smog.

The tram network is particularly environmentally friendly, relying on cheaply generated electricity, and offering better service performance because low-floor trams, evidently, do not get trapped in traffic queues.

Lisbon, already blessed with a good basic tram network, is encouraging further business from frustrated road users. Its newly introduced cashless smart card tickets are easier to purchase and can also be used on the metro, buses and ferries.

Finally, take a glance at Nantes in Western France, where half a million residents are drifting to public transport out of choice, not coercion. As well as highway priority schemes favouring trams, the SNCF main line railway from Bordeaux has been upgraded to commuter status with park-and-ride areas that are proving an irresistible attraction.

Who says it can’t be done?

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