European Transport Workers’ Federation Calls for a Visionary Future for Rail Transport in Europe

2 Apr 2024

As the Connecting Europe Days unfold, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) stands with a resounding call for European policymakers to prioritize the future of rail transport on the continent. The railway sector has long been the backbone of European mobility, fostering economic growth, environmental sustainability, and social cohesion. However, without a cohesive and visionary strategy for its advancement, the potential of rail transport remains largely untapped.

The ETF recognizes the pivotal role that railways play in shaping Europe’s sustainable future. From facilitating cross-border trade to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and road congestion, the benefits of an efficient and modern rail network are undeniable. Yet, despite these advantages, the railway sector continues to face numerous challenges, including underinvestment, difficulties in attracting sufficient staff and a lack of political will to prioritize rail in the development of Europe’s transport system.

In goods transport, the environmental superiority of rail freight over road transport is indisputable. Each freight train in Europe effectively replaces more than 50 trucks, resulting in significantly lower carbon emissions. Cargo transported by rail emits nine times less CO2 than the same quantity transported by road, making rail freight one of the most environmentally friendly modes of goods transport. As the EU endeavours to double the modal share of rail freight by 2050, policymakers must recognize and prioritize the critical role of rail freight in achieving the objectives of the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy.

However, despite its environmental advantages and crucial role in European industries, rail freight’s modal share has declined steadily since the liberalization of the sector in 2006, reaching an all-time low of 11.5% in 2020. This decline is exacerbated by ongoing European Commission investigations and proposed restructuring plans for major rail freight operators, which threaten to dismantle these companies and disrupt the entire sector including the loss of thousands of green jobs. Proposed restructuring plans jeopardize the future of single-wagon load services, potentially leading to a significant increase in road freight and reversing the modal shift from road to rail.

In light of these challenges, the ETF urges European policymakers to seize the opportunity presented by Connecting Europe Days to reevaluate their approach to rail transport. Over the past decades, hopes for liberalisation to boost the sector have proven unfounded and ineffective. Since the 1990s over 20.000 km of railway infrastructure have been lost, and rail’s modal share in both passenger and cargo transport has declined. A proactive approach that prioritises long- and short-term investments in the sector and the well-being of its workers is imperative for a comprehensive vision for the future of rail in Europe. This vision must encompass not only infrastructure investment but also address broader issues such as making the sector attractive for workers, smart use of digitalization, and ensuring the coherence of overall sustainable transport policies.

Furthermore, the ETF emphasizes the importance of placing railway workers at the centre of efforts to modernize the sector. Amidst discussions and celebrations of connectivity, it is disheartening to witness the omission of railway workers from the forefront of these conversations. As the sector struggles to be attractive to new workers and automation and digitalization reshape the future of work, it is essential to invest in training and upskilling programs to equip railway workers with the necessary skills to thrive in a rapidly evolving industry. Additionally, policies must be implemented to ensure that the transition to a more digitalized and automated rail sector is accompanied by measures to protect workers’ rights and job security.

In addition to infrastructure and workforce development, the ETF calls on European policymakers to prioritize sustainable transport policies that incentivize a modal shift towards rail. This includes measures such as internalising the true cost of transport, both social and environmental, for all modes of transport and investing in multimodal transport to ensure seamless integration between rail and first/last-mile delivery.

As we celebrate Connecting Europe Days, let us not forget the vital role that railways play in connecting people, businesses, and communities across the continent. By recognising rail as a service of public interest and developing a visionary strategy for the future of rail, we can ensure that Europe remains at the forefront of sustainable and efficient transportation for generations to come.

The ETF calls on policymakers and industry partners to make this vision a reality. Together, we can build a brighter future for rail transport in Europe—one that prioritizes sustainability, the needs of society, and the well-being of railway workers.

Facts and figures

  • Cargo transported by train emits 9x less CO2 than by road
  • 1 freight train = 50+ trucks
  • Modal share of rail freight declined from 15.6 in 1995 to 11.5 in 2020
  • 658km (almost 10%) of railway lines have been lost since 1990