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EU Tourism Strategy Could Kill Rail Travel, Industry Warns


Across the world, people are grappling with the same question: will it be safe to take a vacation this summer?

Yesterday the European Commission unveiled a tourism strategy designed to encourage them to go on holidays, fearful that a tourist-free summer would kill off an industry that represents 10% of Europe’s economic output. But many people are still anxious about taking a plane for such a vacation, and would feel safer taking a train to their destination instead.

“In a post-COVID reality, trains give you greater leeway in terms of social distancing – choosing off-peak trains, the ability to go and stand in a less crowded carriage if yours is a little busy,” says Eran Edry, a writer living in London. “On planes, you’re as good as shackled to your seat.”

But rail operators say that yesterday’s tourism strategy not only doesn’t encourage this modal shift from air to rail this summer, it seems to shut down the possibility. While the Commission has complied with the aviation lobby’s request not to require or recommend social distancing on planes, the strategy has recommended that national governments require distancing on trains.

This would mean that planes wouldn’t need to leave empty seats between passengers, but trains would.

“What they’re proposing for trains is simply not feasible,” says Libor Lochman, executive director of the Confederation of European Railways. “Requiring social distancing on board a train would mean you have to lower capacity by 40-50%. My immediate question would be who’s going to pay for that? Either authorities compensate the losses or you have to raise the ticket price, and people will move from trains to cars.”

Though it appeared during a press conference held yesterday by EU Transport Commission Adina Valean that the EU executive had ruled out recommending social distancing on planes, a Commission spokesperson said today they are still consulting with the European Centres for Disease Control and the International Air Transport Association and may make such a recommendation later.

But for trains, the strategy recommends now that social distancing obligations should be applied on all trains, and their frequency and capacity should be increased. It also recommends that national governments require all trains to only accept passengers who have made online bookings in advance – even for regional trains. This would enable the trains to ensure seats are left free for distancing. It also says that smaller train stations in which passenger distance can’t be ensured should be closed down.

“When you read it line by line you come to the conclusion that someone thinks trains operate for free,” says Lochman.

“Under normal conditions the distancing between passengers on a train is much wider than on a plane,” he says. Passengers also have more freedom to move further away or choose a less crowded train. But requiring trains to maintain empty seats and restrict ridership wouldn’t be economically feasible.

“Railway companies, in cooperation with the national authorities & health advisory bodies, have already put in place health & safety measures to ensure that all rail services can remain open and accessible and gradually restart where they were interrupted, while ensuring the health and safety of passengers and staff.”

Domestic train ridership dropped by 85% during the first two weeks of the crisis, says Lochman, and is only now starting to slowly increase as lockdowns are eased.

Because of border closures, international passenger rail has been almost completely halted in Europe since the start of the pandemic. The only exceptions are lines that must run because of government agreements, such as the ICE from Brussels to Frankfurt which is still running twice a day. Those trains are almost completely empty since people cannot cross the Belgium-Germany border except for essential reasons.

Adding extra carriages may seem like an easy solution compared to planes which can’t do it, but this costs money, Lochman says. Ticket prices would need to be raised, and that would send people either into airplanes or cars – particularly if airplanes have no such social distancing requirements and don’t need to increase frequency.

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Europe has the most developed rail network of any continent, allowing travellers to get to tourist destinations by train in a way they never could in the United States. But to some, the strategy appears to be pushing passengers onto planes instead. Airlines have warned they are facing their biggest liquidity crisis in history and without bailouts and increased passenger numbers soon, many will go out of business.

Environmental campaigners have been generally disappointed that the strategy’s failure to deliver on the Commission’s promise of encouraging a new form of tourism that is both healthier and more sustainable. Not only does the strategy not encourage people to take trains instead of planes this summer, it seems to be encouraging people to travel in cars rather than trains or public transport in order to stop the spread of the virus. This is the opposite of what city authorities across Europe are encouraging, as they restrict traffic in cities as lockdowns end.

Campaigners are also upset that the bailouts for airlines are not coming with conditions attached requiring them to reduce their emissions.

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