Does Europe Have the Stamina for Change?

27 January 2008 (Last Updated January 27th, 2008 18:30)

Billions may need to be invested in rail to persuade European travellers to meet world environmental targets. At the same time, significant sums are being spent as the UK's image-conscious major passenger operators go through yet another rebranding exercise.

Does Europe Have the Stamina for Change?

Safeguarding the world from irreversible climate change now seems to be at the top of everyone's agenda, and making public transport an attractive alternative to the polluting motor car and freight lorry is a vital part of the strategy. That is, of course, if it doesn't cost much.

Just how serious European countries are about the whole subject is about to be tested with the publication of a green paper, of which the European Commission is keen to get a wide airing.

The document, Towards a New Culture for Urban Mobility, is intended to stir up debate and then fashion policy on making our towns and cities greener, less clogged with traffic, and safer places to live, work and breathe.

The concept's Achilles heel, however, is that the EC is obliged to "respect the responsibilities of local, regional and national authorities".

This seems to guarantee that nations such as France will take the lead on all matters high-speed and urban-mass transit, with its manufacturers well set to capitalise on the investment that will be required.

"Many believe that the main barrier to improving transport and mobility is insufficient political support and leadership."

Italy and Spain may not be far behind, with the rather cash-strapped Germany offering somewhat less enthusiasm. The UK is trailing at the back, as despite keen expressions of interest, politics cannot do much about it. What will count will be the opinions of the general public, who have until 15 March 2008 to register their views. The outcome will be announced in an official EC action plan later this year.

Persuading the general public to agree to the need for this quantum change will take some achieving. A survey conducted by the European Commission's General Energy and Transport Directorate has revealed that more than 60% of those who took part believe that the main barrier to improving transport and mobility is insufficient political support and leadership.

In a democratic system, it will be interesting to see how this concern is translated via the ballot box at election time.

IS IMAGE-BUILDING MONEY WELL SPENT?

Any visitor to the UK at the end of 2007 will have witnessed wholesale changes in the appearance of large volumes of its mainline train fleet – the outcome of the government's reletting of several of the largest passenger franchises to new companies.

"Critics regard the embarkation on a wholesale repainting exercise as a waste of valuable funds."

Critics of the policy of allowing private companies to run former state-owned assets have had a field day, regarding the embarkation on a wholesale repainting exercise as a waste of valuable funds that could either be employed for improving the service, or keeping annual fare increases more in line with inflation.

The change is no more evident than on the East Coast Main Line, where GNER has just surrendered control after 12 years.

Parent company Sea Containers was reluctant to hand over its high-quality brand name without a substantial payment, so National Express had to devise its own, at the same time having to expunge all details of its predecessors from its trains, stations, timetables, literature and signage.

It will take some considerable time for the new corporate Nat-Ex image to make its mark. In the meantime, the former GNER trains are running in a distinctly down-at-heel fashion, with white plastic strips roughly applied over where the classic red and gold once was. On other routes, the moving around of rolling stock with obsolete branding presents a kaleidoscope of chaos.

EUROPE SPEEDING AHEAD OF THE UK

Exactly ten years ago, the opening of the high-speed route across Belgium was something of a revolution, and we were intoxicated by the launch of a direct London-Brussels service with a fastest-ever journey time of just 2hr 31min.

"The current European high-speed network is around 5,000km, but is set to grow to 15,000km before 2020."

It is now possible to do this same trip in just 1hr 51min, thanks to the recent commissioning of the full High Speed 1 route out of London's St Pancras international station. It will be interesting to how this evolves further in another decade.

By 2018, Brussels may no longer be seen as a destination in itself, but merely a passing place on much longer trips that will make many of Western Europe's major cities possible to visit on a day return trip.

At the start of 1998, the European high-speed network was still in a relatively primitive state, led by France and with some support from Germany. At this time, a journey from London to Berlin was possible, but might have required cumbersome train changes at Magdeburg, Cologne and Brussels.

Now with high-speed network expansion enthusiastically taking place across the continent, the travel possibilities will soon be endless. The current European high-speed network is around 5,000km (3,100 miles), but is set to grow to 7,600km (4,700 miles) within just two years, and to 15,000km (9,500 miles) before 2020.

New lines are under constitution or at the planning stage in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy. As extensively reported elsewhere on railway-technology.com, even if the cost of completely new infrastructure is not justified, the reconstruction of 'classic' lines through mountainous countries such as Switzerland and Austria can also make a significant contribution to reductions in journey times.

"The UK has no firm plans to connect its major cities north of London."

There is always bound to be one European country that is dragging its heels, and that is the UK, which has no firm plans to connect its major cities north of London. Despite having invested its taxpayers' money in Eurostar train sets for regional services, they have never turned a wheel for this purpose, and they are now quietly employed on French domestic duties instead.

Overnight sleeper coaches, built with great enthusiasm, also failed to run between Glasgow, Manchester and Paris as expected. Instead, they have been exported across the Atlantic to Canada – surely one of the bargain purchases of all time.

A coincidental anniversary is that it is also precisely 40 years since the then-nationalised British Railways advocated the complete closure of St Pancras. It perceived that its remaining suburban services could easily be transferred to next-door King's Cross, and intercity services diverted to nearby Euston.

Investment resources were clearly at rock bottom, and unloading the architectural but maintenance-heavy gem of St Pancras station to a local authority for conversion into a museum, housing or perhaps even demolition was certainly an attractive economic proposition. Happily, this is one proposal that is now history itself.