This article is part of the special report, End of the Road, about decarbonizing freight transport.
BERLIN — In aiming to fulfill Ursula von der Leyen’s promise to make the Continent carbon neutral by 2050, the European Commission is betting on railways.
Transport emissions currently account for more than a quarter of the bloc’s total carbon footprint; and because trains emit less greenhouse gases than trucks, shifting cargo and passengers from road to rail would help cut that pollution.
The trouble is that railways are struggling because countries have been reluctant to stump up the hundreds of billions of euros needed to handle the extra traffic. Without that money, there’s little chance of the Commission president-elect’s European Green Deal pledge of slashing emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 and carbon neutrality by mid-century becoming reality.
“The Green Deal without basic infrastructure just won’t work,” said Monika Heiming, executive director of the Brussels-based European Rail Infrastructure Managers lobby group. “Rail is saturated, a modal shift needs to come with capacity, but we don’t have capacity left.”
Despite carrying 17 percent of the EU’s freight and 8 percent of passengers, railways account for only 3 percent of the bloc’s transport emissions. Road transport is responsible for more than 70 percent. Even with the growing pressure to go green, transport emissions are steadily rising.
In a 2015 EU Court of Auditors report, the total external costs (noise, pollution and accidents) of transporting a ton of cargo for 1 kilometer were 2.01 cents for trucks and 0.8 cents for trains (barges do even better).
The EU’s goal is to shift 30 percent of road transport at distances of over 300 kilometers to trains and barges by 2030, and to reach 50 percent by 2050.
But that’s going to mean more pressure on Europe’s already congested tracks, raising questions over how to finance, maintain and modernize rail systems.
Running on empty
One in 4 Deutsche Bahn long-distance trains are now delayed due partly to capacity problems on Germany’s rail network. Cities are also struggling; the rail tunnel running under Brussels is facing a capacity crunch that could require a new €2 billion investment to relieve the strain, and Amsterdam’s big hubs are running at capacity too.
It’s estimated that some €500 billion is needed by 2030 to complete work on the EU’s trans-European networks — mainlines that handle the bulk of cross-border traffic. Much of that should be spent on buttressing tracks, upgrading signaling systems and drilling new tunnels, bridges and freight-shifting hubs.
That means cash is needed, and quick.
The German government last month promised to spend an extra €11 billion by 2030. That comes on top of an €86 billion funding bonanza earmarked for Deutsche Bahn. But experts say more is needed to add the 30 percent extra capacity DB executives want to achieve, in addition to doubling passenger numbers by 2030. Upgrading signaling and laying on extra-long 740-meter freight trains will also help. But DB can’t finance those investments itself.
“You cannot make enough on the tickets alone,” said a senior rail executive.
One reason government money is needed is that rail projects just aren’t attractive to private investors. Heiming reckons it takes at least 20 years to make back money invested in new signaling systems, for example. Rolling out the European Rail Traffic Management System — a digital signaling system that allows more trains to run on tracks at the same time — on the main corridors will cost at least €15 billion.
That’s not say nothing is happening. There are some big infrastructure projects underway. A new undersea link between Denmark and Germany dubbed the Fehmarn Belt should slash transit time between Copenhagen and Hamburg, while engineers are boring a tunnel under the Alps that can relieve truck traffic through the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy. There’s also the long-mooted Rail Baltica project to link up Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Those three projects alone cost up to €20 billion, with much of the cash coming from EU funds backing up modest capital investments from governments.
Politicians are warning that those big rail projects will need continued commitments through the 2020s to get them up and running. If that doesn’t happen, then von der Leyen’s plans are in trouble.
Since 2014, the EU has said it will funnel €24 billion through the Connecting Europe Facility to transport projects through to 2020. Rail has sucked up €16.3 billion of that, split between 266 different projects, according to European Commission statistics.
Now countries are haggling over the next budgetary period starting in 2021. The Commission wants capitals to provide €30.6 billion for standard transport projects, but Brexit and frugality from some of the bloc’s richer countries means steep cuts to overall spending are likely when the budget is finally approved next year.
“The new CEF program risks being unable to sufficiently co-fund the decarbonization projects needed to ensure that the EU reaches its 2030 climate targets,” said Libor Lochman, executive director of the Brussels-based Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies.
This article is from POLITICO Pro: POLITICO’s premium policy service. To discover why thousands of professionals rely on Pro every day, email email@example.com for a complimentary trial.