Accelerating towards a sustainable future: The promise of European high-speed rail

By Andrey Novakov, MEP (pictured)
Spring 2024

Andrey Novakov, MEPIn the push for a greener, more connected Europe, high-speed rail emerges as a beacon of sustainable innovation, poised to revolutionize the continent's transportation landscape.
As the European Union sets its sights on ambitious climate targets and seeks to foster greater cohesion among its member states, the development of a comprehensive high-speed rail network stands as a linchpin in realizing these objectives.

The EU's vision for a unified European railway area is bold and forwardthinking. With strategies aimed at doubling high-speed rail by 2030 and tripling it by 2050, alongside the establishment of nine core transport corridors, the stage is set for a transformative shift towards greener, more efficient mobility. However, implementing this vision is not without its challenges.

One of the foremost hurdles lies in the fragmented nature of existing high-speed rail networks, particularly in Eastern Europe, where many cities remain disconnected from the broader network. As described by the European Court of Auditors in 2018, the EU high-speed rail network is "not a reality but an ineffective patchwork". Despite efforts to expand infrastructure and promote technical harmonization, regulatory obstacles and slow development hinder progress towards a truly integrated European rail system.

In a recent report published by the European parliament's Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, one of the key findings is that the European Cohesion Policy should prioritize supporting new high-speed rail services, as they can replace short-haul flights in the future. This contributes to reducing CO2 emissions, especially considering that half of EU Member States currently do not have high-speed rail services.

Moreover, high-speed rail plays a pivotal role in advancing Europe's transition to a more sustainable future by significantly lowering greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. As the continent aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, shifting towards low-carbon transportation modes is essential. High-speed rail offers a practical alternative to air travel for mediumdistance trips, substantially cutting emissions while providing passengers with a fast, convenient, and environmentally friendly travel option.

Being a member of the European parliament since 2014 and president of Rail Forum Europe since 2020, I follow closely the involvement of the European parliament in the rail sector. The Parliament has used its legislative powers to support most of the Commission's harmonisation proposals, while simultaneously highlighting certain particular aspects through its resolutions. With the EU Year of Rail 2020, a number of initiatives were developed to highlight the importance of rail in 'door-to-door' transport, as well as to promote work-to-work and home-to-work solutions.

However, the Parliament's resolution on railway safety and signalling (adopted in July 2021), along with the TEN-T revision that has been recently concluded, provide a number of provisions to address the main issues identified with ERTMS deployment.

A big step was also the EP resolution from December 2022 that supported Commission's action plan to boost long-distance and cross-border passenger rail, but also calling for, among other things, speeding up the construction of new rail lines and prioritising investment in the development of cross-border, longdistance high-speed rail links.

With the unanimous adoption of my report on the implementation of cohesion policy and the future of cohesion policy, the Committee on Regional Development has signalled a major shift towards accelerating investments along the TEN-T. A key reform in this regard is to advance EU payments before the completion of the actual construction works. This will make it easier and cheaper for the governments and the regions to implement the rail projects.

Another important idea about the future of investments is to establish reserve margins within cohesion policy in order to help with the absorption of inflation shock that could otherwise grind railway projects to a halt.

Financing for rail projects, however, is the elephant in the room. The EU designated some 18 billion euro of cohesion policy investments in the 2014-2020. For the 2021-2027 period, EU's cohesion policy will invest 7 billion euro along the TEN-T rail network. At the same time, the scale of investment required is substantial, with estimates reaching EUR 500 billion by 2030 and EUR 1,500 billion by 2050 to fully realise the EU's targets. Yet, funding alone is not enough. High-speed rail must be prioritized as a key horizontal initiative across member states, transcending political divides and differing priorities. Only through concerted effort and collective commitment can the full potential of high-speed rail be unlocked.

The benefits of an expanded highspeed rail network are manifold. Beyond economic growth and emissions reduction, high-speed rail offers a solution to congestion woes, seamlessly connecting capitals and major cities while fostering greater cohesion between Eastern and Western Europe. Moreover, by completing missing rail connections and prioritizing cross-border projects, high-speed rail has the potential to bridge longstanding divides and facilitate greater mobility and exchange.

However, realizing these benefits requires more than just infrastructure expansion. Enhancing the quality of passenger services is paramount, with a focus on digitalization, integrated ticketing systems, affordability, and the promotion of multimodal journeys. Furthermore, ensuring the security of the network is of utmost importance, particularly in light of recent geopolitical developments. Investments must be assessed not only for their economic viability but also for their ability to uphold rigorous security standards, including potential attacks on their integrity and functionality.

Looking to the future, the development of high-speed rail represents not just a means of transportation but a catalyst for broader societal change.

Ideally, future EU Cohesion Policy phases should prioritise regional accessibility investment, aiming to link all major and medium EU urban settlements via a green and smart high-speed railway network that can effectively replace many current regional flights and thus contribute to achieving EU Green Deal goals.

By prioritizing sustainability, connectivity, and security, Europe can chart a course towards a more prosperous and resilient future. As the continent accelerates towards this vision, the imperative is clear: high-speed rail must be elevated as a cornerstone of Europe’s sustainable development strategy, embodying the values of unity, progress, and innovation.