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"Connecting Cities with High-Speed Railway is Key," Says Herald Ruijters, European Commission

&quote;Connecting Cities with High-Speed Railway is Key,&quote; Says Herald Ruijters, European Commission
photo: The / DG Move / Public domain/Herald Ruijters
16 / 04 / 2024

RAILTARGET presents an exclusive interview with Herald Ruijters, Deputy Director-General at the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, European Commission, who shares crucial insights into the strategic importance of high-speed rail infrastructure in Europe. Ruijters delves into the vital connections high-speed rail offers between major European cities, its implications for sustainability, and its potential to revolutionize the way Europeans travel and transport goods.

The recent railway management conference in Prague, among other topics, was dedicated to the strategic importance of high-speed rail infrastructure. In your opinion, how crucial is the construction of high-speed tracks for achieving Europe's transport and environmental objectives?

Connecting European cities with fast, comfortable, and reliable high-speed rail services is a key element to achieving the ambitious goals of the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy. It is also an expectation of millions of citizens looking for more sustainable ways to travel and make the most of European integration. To achieve these objectives, we need three things: i) high-quality infrastructure, ii) robust rules to use this infrastructure, and iii) healthy railway undertakings that offer services that meet travellers’ needs and preferences.

When it comes to the infrastructure dimension addressed in your question, increasing the number of high-speed tracks would be crucial to further develop a high-performance integrated rail network across Europe.

The revised TEN-T Regulation aims to facilitate such progress by setting specific requirements, such as:

  • Passenger lines on the core and extended core network will have to allow trains to travel at a minimum of 160 km/h per hour by 2040. This will make it possible to connect Berlin to Prague to Vienna in 4 hours (instead of 8 currently), Copenhagen and Berlin in 4 (instead of 7), and Lisbon to Madrid in 3 hours (instead of 11 today).
  • Continuation of large-scale electrification will keep rail at the forefront of sustainability.
  • Better connections of railways to major transport hubs will also make it easier for passengers to opt for rail as a means of transportation.
  • Connecting major airports to long-distance rail will ease reaching passengers’ final destination by train and promote greener and more efficient multimodal travel. Urban nodes that have a rail connection will also need to better integrate railway stations with other modes, making rail services more attractive as a last-mile option of travel.

Funding high-speed rail projects is a significant challenge. From your perspective, what would constitute an ideal financial model to support the development and sustainability of high-speed rail networks across Europe?

Of course, high-speed rail requires significant investments. Currently, financing is largely based on a mix of public subsidies and revenues from track access charges (TACs). European contributions complete this framework, mainly through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) for Transport.

Since 2014, the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) has supported more than 600 rail projects for a total EU contribution of EUR 26 billion, generating overall investments of more than EUR 46 billion. The CEF II budget for the period 2021 – 2027 has already been consumed for more than 80%. Therefore, while CEF does its fair share, it can only partially cover the investment needs. 

We, as the Commission and EU, together with the Member States, will need to step up our efforts and see how the next MFF could be designed in such a way that it could provide the support that is required for the massive investments in the rail network and TEN-T transport infrastructure at large.

The Commission will advocate continuous support of transport projects of high European-added value under the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework. The new TEN-T Regulation will be used as a reference to prepare the proposal for the next financial perspectives for the period after 2027. Similarly, the TEN-T Regulation will also be used as a reference for many other types of (private) investments.

Additional co-funding sources that should continue to be explored are the Recovery and Resilience Facility, Cohesion Fund, European Regional Development Fund, Horizon Europe and European Structural, Investment Funds, InvestEU, as well as the Emissions Trading System (ETS). Other tools, such as Private Public Partnerships, National Funds, and the emission of Green Bonds, may complement the infrastructure funding model.

High-speed rail promises efficient connections between major cities and substantial reductions in air emissions. Can the railway sector effectively compete with air transport in terms of speed, convenience, and environmental impact?

Rail is indeed at the centre of the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy as the mode of transport with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

Only a fully integrated and coherent network with a true EU dimension allowing for high-performance services across borders and over long distances will entice passengers and freight carriers to opt for rail as the most sustainable and clean mode of transport. The ambition of having a minimum design speed of 160km/h for core and extended core network passenger lines is vital in this regard.

Furthermore, we need to better connect our airports to the railway network to avoid short-haul flights and allow customers direct railway connections to their destinations.

There is also the challenge highlighted by stakeholders of railways being a costly transport mode, which puts it at a disadvantage to compete with road and air transport.

The Commission sees the further harmonization and the completion of the single market for railway equipment as a major lever to decrease the costs and to increase the capacity of the supply industry to serve the railways.

Digitalization is the other tool that can decrease operational costs and make railways more efficient and flexible for customer needs.

Beyond passenger services, the construction of high-speed tracks is often cited as beneficial for freight transport capacity. How important do you believe the development of high-speed rail is for enhancing the competitiveness and support of freight rail transport in Europe?

Certainly, the development of high-speed rail in Europe can play an important role in enhancing the competitiveness and support of freight rail transport. High-speed rail is not only about passenger services; it is a strategic move that bolsters freight transport, promotes sustainability, and contributes to Europe’s economic prosperity. New high-speed rail connections are also creating additional capacities on the traditional tracks.

High-speed tracks can be dual-purpose, accommodating both passenger and freight trains. This expansion of rail capacity benefits freight transport by providing additional routes and reducing congestion.

By utilizing high-speed lines during off-peak passenger hours, freight services can operate efficiently without disrupting passenger services.

High-speed rail networks connect major cities and regions. Integrating freight services into these networks enhances connectivity and accessibility, facilitating seamless movement of goods across borders.