March 4. 2024. 6:51

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Study on rail border crossings: significant potential for travel time reductions


ERA proposes solutions and emphasises the need for further reduction of the national rules, and further adaptation of the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs) to facilitate harmonisation across EuropERA – European Union Agency for Railways

With less GHG emission, energy consumption, and external costs as compared to road, rail is set to play a crucial role in reaching the EU’s climate objectives. However, the market share of European rail traffic has increased very little over the last decade. The relative share of people and goods transported by railways, as compared with other modes of transport, has stagnated at around 8% for passengers, and around 16% for freight. International rail traffic is significant only for freight services (accounting for slightly more than 50% of total rail freight traffic) and appears to account for quite a small proportion only of passenger services (around 6%). These figures have been largely stable since 2006, suggesting that the EU is far from achieving its ambitions in this area.

The EU’s target for 2030 is to have 30% of all freight transported by train, but so far, there has not been any progress on this; in the last couple of years, the modal share went even down. This clearly indicates the need for urgent action; the longer we wait, the more difficult will be to reach the desired modal share in time.

Immediate action is therefore needed to remove barriers to cross-border rail transport – both for passenger and freight – in order to finally see the rail modal share growth. As a European authority, ERA will make its contribution by further reducing national rules, improving European Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs), supporting regulation to improve cross-border coordination (TEN-T revision), and strictly applying EU regulation as a system authority for vehicle authorization, safety certification, and ERTMS trackside approval. However, this alone will not cut the cake. A multifaceted, EU-level approach would be needed to facilitate targeted investments with a focus on missing links at border crossings across Europe.

The Cross-Border Rail Transport Potential Report by the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) indicates that, although the interoperability of the EU railway system is improving, technical and operational barriers at cross-borders still hamper the seamlessness of international rail connections and the modal shift to rail. The report assesses how the further removal of technical and operational barriers at European cross-border sections would contribute to the attractiveness and competitiveness of rail transport, showing a substantial potential for time savings.

The study is a factual analysis of four cross-border sections, two for passengers and two for freight rail:

  • Rail passenger connection Vienna (Austria) – Győr (Hungary);
  • Rail passenger connection Berlin (Germany) and Kostrzyn (Poland);
  • Freight rail cross-border section Brennero (Italy) – Staatsgrenze nächst Steinach in Tirol (Austria);
  • Freight rail cross-border section Giurgiu Nord (Romania) – Ruse Razpredel (Bulgaria).

The analyses present an in-depth view of the literature and collected data. The cases on cross-border passenger transport build primarily on qualitative inputs, including observations on international high-speed rail connections. The two case studies focusing on freight provide a quantitative evaluation of the impacts of technical and operational barriers on travel time, which in turn adversely affect rail volumes and modal split. Several technical and operational barriers to interoperability hampering international rail freight traffic are considered, such as for example:

  • The use of braking sheets with different layouts and contents, or the setting of different requirements for braking performance (notably the braking percentages) and braking calculations (with RUs required to switch braking regimes at border crossings even if the train composition does not change).
  • Member States’ national rules require (technical and mandatory) checks to be performed at border stations, at regular distances, and/or at time intervals.
  • National requirements concerning the train composition might lead to unnecessary shunting at border stations, like the requirement that the last wagon of a train is equipped with a handbrake.

The report identifies strong potential for time savings (variable from 50 minutes up to 6 hours) for rail freight by solving the technical and operational issues at border crossings; it also indicates a potential decrease in the current journey time (of 70 -115 minutes) by around 10 – 15 minutes for passenger rail in the case of Vienna (Austria) – Győr (Hungary) connection.

The report also specifies some study limitations which should be taken into account to handle and interpret with care the results presented, such as the focus only on the removal of technical and operational barriers without considering the possible spill-over effects emerging from more measures adopted simultaneously or a rough estimation of the potential growth in demand based only on time elasticities which are not fully exhaustive. Follow-up studies/analyses would be highly beneficial for fine-tuning the findings and/or for focusing more deeply on specific aspects.

Based on the findings of the study, ERA proposes solutions and emphasises the need for further reduction of the national rules, and further adaptation of the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs) to facilitate harmonisation across Europe. ERA considers that TSIs can further contribute to lowering some barriers by closing open points and by reducing, where appropriate, specific cases. Doing so would improve the prospects of rail transport in general and international rail transport in particular. In many cases, these improvements can be achieved in the short to medium term over the next years, with comparatively little financial investment.