A rail journey across Europe, linking cities like dots on a map, all the way to the Green Deal.
After zigzagging around the continent, on 7 October the EU-sponsored Connecting Europe Express reached Paris, its final destination and the end of its mission: hailing a new era for rail travel.
The Connecting Europe Express is the EU Commission’s flagship initiative to encourage citizens across the continent to take to the station rather than the airport or the parking garage. It aims to draw people from all walks of life: commuters, business travellers and holidaymakers.
On the way to carbon neutrality
With transport accounting for 25% of the EU’s greenhouse emissions, the way Europeans move around is central to the Green Deal strategy.
With 2050 fast approaching and with that date set as the deadline to become fully carbon-neutral, the EU is betting on rail as a more sustainable mode of transport and an efficient alternative to planes and cars. To prop up that effort, it declared 2021 the European Year of Rail, a slogan stamped on the doors of the Connecting Europe Express wagons, next to a shout: ‘Hop on!’
And onboard they hopped: EU citizens and EU officials alike all travelled on the Connecting Europe Express at some point of its 36-day journey across European borders, with young bloggers and Instagrammers providing accounts on the landscapes and experiences they enjoyed along the way.
The train started its journey in Lisbon on 2 September, a timely choice to relaunch travel just as the Covid pandemic seems to loosen its grip on Europe.
With 200 stops over 20,000 kilometres, passengers had plenty to admire from their windows as the train darted around, passing through lakes, valleys, mountains, cities and towns from Madrid to Sofia, from Estonia to Greece.
Connecting Europe, people and cities
Accounting for just 0.4 % of all its CO2 transport emissions, trains are “sustainable, innovative and safe”, proclaims the EU.
Rail is also one of the safest ways to move around, second only to air travel, according to EU statistics.
Eurocities fully endorses the European Year of Rail initiative and the effort to reduce transport’s environmental impact, not least because it will bring positive effects on cities.
“At Eurocities, we believe that the way you enter a city defines your behaviour during your stay. That’s why the European Year of Rail is a good initiative to make people aware when planning their travels, but also when moving in the city in which they live or that they are visiting,” says Juan Caballero, Mobility Project Coordinator at Eurocities.
More work ahead
While it’s easy to see the case for embracing train travel, putting the idea into practice will require a larger effort.
Through this year’s initiatives, the EU is aiming not just to raise “awareness of the benefits of rail” but also about “the challenges we still need to overcome,” as it states on the Connecting Europe Express website.
Evening out differences among cross-continental rail infrastructures, for instance, will need to be made a top priority.
Several European countries, for instance, will have to update their railway lines before being considered fully on board. For that, they will be able to rely on the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), a policy tool to develop an efficient railway network and reduce differences across national and regional lines in Europe.
However, to further convince European citizens, train tickets will also have to be made affordable for everyone, staving off competition from budget airlines offering cheaper prices.
While those changes will take time to materialise, slower train journeys already taught us what we might have forgotten: to take it easy and stop our obsession with schedules; to enjoy the view rather than rejoice about how quickly we got to our destination.