How the EU is helping railways ride out Covid-19
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How the EU is helping railways ride out Covid-19

By Ilaria Grasso Macola 16 Jun 2020

Set up by the International Railway Summit, a webinar held on 9 June 2020 provided the wider industry with a look into the relief measures set in place at the European Union level to help the sector face the economic consequences caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

How the EU is helping railways ride out Covid-19
The webinar focused on the measures set up by the European Union. Credit: Thijs ter Haar.

EU legislation, sustainability and the need for the rail sector to become the most relevant mode of transport were at the centre of the webinar set up by the International Railway Summit.

The seminar, titled EU’S Covid-19 relief measures for the rail sector, attracted 200 of the industry’s top stakeholders, European and international.

Here are five main lessons we learnt from the webinar.

Despite Europe’s lockdown, the rail sector played a key role in handling the coronavirus emergency

Due to a substantial drop in passenger numbers on a European level, rail was one of the sectors that were hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 Despite lockdown restrictions and a halt in international passenger services, however, the sector has provided a key role, especially with regards to rail freight.

Keir Fitch, head of Unit C4 of the European Commission’s directorate-general for mobility and transport (DG MOVE), said that cargo benefitted from the measures because, especially during the early stages of the pandemic, getting cargo across borders was easier by rail than other means of transport.

Rail also tried to fill some of the market’s gaps, as cargo had taken up space from passenger traffic in the railway system.

“We have shown that rail freight can play a much more important role in Europe’s transport system,” said Fitch.

The railway system was also made more reliable due to the implementation of seamless border crossing or ‘green lanes’ to unblock the flow of goods during the pandemic.

“We needed to ensure there were not measures preventing train drivers and particularly railways staff from crossing borders where we had to ensure that maintenance facilities would be kept open to ensure rail operations could continue,” he added.

The European Commission’s railway relief package focuses on legislation

 The European Commission (EC) has adopted a number of emergency legislation to help the rail sector cope with economic losses and it has focused on four distinct areas.

Included is the Omnibus Regulation, a set of measures for all transport modes, aiming to extend the validity of operational certificates and licenses required for transport operators.

In the rail sector, this translated into a legislative extension of the validity of safety certificates and train drivers’ licences for a period of six months. The extension is potentially renewable if the crisis drags on but gives the opportunity to member states to opt-out.

The EC has also published a directive allowing member states to postpone the transposition deadline of the Fourth Railway Package. The legislation, said Fitch, is considered particularly important because it will enable the EU Agency for Railways (ERA) to certify safety certificates and authorise railway rolling stock. The transposition deadline has now been postponed to 31 October 2020.

Fitch explained that several secondary legislations had to be aligned with the relief package, in particular the extension for the certificates of rail entities in charge of maintenance. This new set of legislation comes into force detailing what needs to be done during a two-year transitional period post coronavirus, added Fitch.

The last area introduced by the relief package is new passenger rights guidelines. The European Commission established that passenger who could not travel due to a suspension of services should obtain a refund. The EC is also supporting member states railways that cannot pay the refunds by allowing them to encourage the use of vouchers.

Rail needs to become the most relevant transport mode

 According to EU Agency for Railways (ERA) executive director Josef Doppelbauer, the coronavirus pandemic has presented a great opportunity for the railway sector to “establish reign as the most relevant transport mode in the European Union”.

On an EU level, Doppelbauer believes there is a need to connect major urban areas and airports as well as revitalise the night train network.

“In my view, for distances up to 800km, we need to make flights redundant and we also need to revitalise the night train, which means giving alternative offers to our travellers,” he said.

Large-scale industrialisation and digitisation of the whole network will also be required to make railway more relevant. Steps include upgrading the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS), integrated ticketing and data modularity.

In order to make rail attractive to travellers, said Doppelbauer, there is a need to create a “truly European network for freight and passengers, with common routes.”

To do that, criteria such as service frequency, accessibility and health and safety will need to be included, he added.

Sustainability will be the focus of long-term plans

Given the potential the railway sector has in helping the EU meet its climate objects, experts expect that a substantial part of funds allocated by the European Commission for its recovery plan will be devolved to support investments to decarbonise transport.

The EU is also expected to finance programmes under the future Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which will support the deployment of climate-neutral transport infrastructure.

Information will prove fundamental to promote the industry’s recovery

Due to lockdown measures imposed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, in some countries, the industry has registered a contraction of 85% in long-distance rail passenger as well as 80% fewer passengers in regional rail.

To promote the industry’s recovery, the ERA, at the request of the European Commission, has established an information platform for the sector on coronavirus.

The platform, whose main objectives are discussion and information sharing, was developed by the ERA through the existing networks with national safety authorities and representative bodies in the sector.

“We have the goal to promote mutual acceptance of the measures and we want to promote a consistent approach [to health and safety for employees and customers],” added Doppelbauer.