The Covid Crisis Could Produce a Rail Revolution

With air travel decimated by the pandemic, countries across Europe are investing in high-speed rail networks – now is the time for Britain to invest, and ensure its regions aren't left behind once again.

In the 1990s, night trains across Europe began to greatly reduce their operations, as the growth of budget airlines gave governments an excuse to cut down on public services deemed to be a ‘waste’. 

However, that trend seems to be reversing. The current crisis, which has seen government ministries formally discourage air travel in the name of halting the spread of coronavirus, has struck a historic blow to the aviation industry at a time when the climate crisis demands that air travel is reduced. Public transport is essential in a decarbonised future, and estimates suggest that night trains emit up to 14 times less pollution per passenger-kilometre than planes. 

During this window of opportunity, where car-free highways and empty skies have made the air unusually clean, Europe has had a welcome re-think. The EU’s Green Deal policymaking has led to the Commission injecting €1.6 billion into 55 rail infrastructure projects on the trans-European transport network – including the cross-border section of the railway between Prague and Dresden, as well as the Rail Baltica project, integrating the Baltic States into the European rail network.

Other significant shifts have started to place. France will revive a night train service between Paris and Nice, and a line between Brussels and Vienna has been re-introduced. A new summer night train linking five EU member states – Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia – is already overwhelmed with demand from holiday makers, upping its capacity to run every night.

Austrian Airlines are also removing domestic flights that trains can cover in less than three hours, and have partnered with the national rail operator to offer 31 rail connections per day, an increase from the current three trains in operation per day. A previous route has been resumed, connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

Meanwhile, Sweden is quadrupling the number of night trains on its Stockholm-Malmö-Copenhagen-Hamburg-Berlin route. A new route will connect Malmo with Hamburg, and Stokholm to Brussels by 2022. Spain, Italy and France look to invest as much as 60 billion euros in new high-speed trains. Germany alone is set to spend more than 80 billion euros on its rail network over the next ten years, and just introduced a climate law that will tax road and air travel while reducing taxes on rail fares. 

Additionally, Belgium will offer 12 free train tickets for all its residents from September, Luxembourg already made public transport free to use, and cities including Vienna and Berlin have either already implemented, or are considering, a €1 a day travel model. 

Continental Shift

Many exciting changes are taking place on the continent. Although the UK misses out on funds from the EU, the cross-channel Eurostar places London in striking distance of these developments. They signify an opportunity to access direct trains across Europe with minimal hassle. 

However, the rest of the UK – particularly Northern England and Scotland – risk being even further left behind. A train from Leeds to London takes longer – and can cost much more – than a train from London to Brussels. With extra costs for visas and insurance once we leave the EU, there is a risk that many people will be excluded from cheap foreign travel in a new green economy.

On top of the rising unemployment from Covid-19 and a possible no-deal Brexit, the climate emergency threatens to hit the poorest in society the hardest. A green transition is needed, but carbon intensive industries winding down risks losing unionised employment unless workers are re-trained and deployed into new, green, and fair jobs. 

One idea that was proposed by the Northern Train Campaign – one of a night trains network and a regional Eurostar – may be one antidote. It may seem implausible, but in the 1980s, this was the plan. When trains were still ran by British Rail, there was the intention of building a high-speed train network – called Regional Eurostar and Nightstar. 

These would have connected a variety of British cities to European destinations; Glasgow would go to Paris through the North and the Midlands, and there would be lines to Europe from Plymouth to Swansea. New trains were even ordered, including specialised overnight sleepers, built for new services linking Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield with the continent. Eurostar lounges were installed at stations along the route. British Rail invested £140 million in infrastructure to allow the services to operate, but it never materialised. 

The failure to get these trains up and running (and help give the north a fighting chance), can be attributed to the slump in overnight train use within Mainland Europe, the rapid rise of cheap airlines, and the UK rail network being privatised. At present, we are witnessing the reversal of all three of these trends. 

So, what is stopping a revival of a regional Eurostar? At the moment that HS2 announced construction, the plan was given another spark of life. At its closest point, HS2 would be just 0.4 miles from the Eurostar (HS1).

Proposals were made in 2013 for a link between the two, allowing HS2 trains from the North to bypass London Euston and connect straight to HS1. This could enable direct rail services to run from Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. Yet sadly this was scrapped, ostensibly to save the best part of £1 billion. 

The prospect of an HS1-HS2 link was revived in 2018 when a proposal was put forward by engineering consultancy to create a 140-kilometre high-speed railway line to link the two across southern England. This scheme was rejected by the government, who did not consider it ‘financially credible without support’.

As such, the Eurostar will remain physically isolated from the future High Speed 2 line to the Midlands and the North – despite the two being ‘tantalisingly close’ at Euston. For the rest of the country, rail connections to Europe remains a distant possibility.

Connecting the Regions

Whether the Tory ‘level-up agenda’ means anything in practice will depend heavily on their next steps. Concerns still exist, with HS2 lacking a timetable for the North and only existing for the London to Birmingham route. Regional infrastructure still needs committed investment, such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’, and local lines. 

Trains have been temporarily nationalised, and demand has remained low because of the pandemic. Unlike planes, where it is harder to socially distance and easier to breath in other people’s recycled air, trains are a sustainable solution for the climate crisis too. When reimagining the future of mobility, this should not include bailing out airlines. Right-wing Tory MP Dehenna Davison proudly tweeted her excitement of a new route from Teesside to London City, but domestic flights such as these will either lead workers – or the planet – down a dead end. 

In an era of furlough and company bailouts including £600 million for EasyJet, and with interest rates at its lowest in history, arguments of a ‘magic money tree’ can now be pushed firmly to one side. If the UK government embarks on selected austerity measures, and views trains as an easy target for short-term cost cutting (worryingly signalled with the bailout of TfL), the country – particularly the North – will be the long-term loser. 

In a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1999, it was said that the abandonment of a regional Eurostar meant that “the regions have been cheated.” In this unique period, a government committing itself to proper train infrastructure across the whole of the country and elsewhere, including a network of night trains, would prevent this from ever happening again.