It’s not happening tomorrow, but it is going to be possible sooner than you may think.

A number of announcements have been made in the last few weeks, and they seem to centre around France, Spain and Portugal, where most of the investment is being made.

2021 was named by the EU as the European Year of Rail. The EU has recently announced ‘An Action Plan to boost long-distance and cross-border passenger rail services, combined with changes to the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) to increase high-speed rail capacity, and new European Investment Bank (EIB) support for investment in rail, are preparing the ground for a real renaissance in rail’.

EU proposes VAT exemption for international train journey

I believe it’s fair to say that not many of us are in love with the EU, but we must admit they do get some things right, and their plans and financial support for cross border high speed rail is one of the things they are getting right. The Commission will explore the possibilities for a European Union-wide VAT exemption for international train journeys. In 2023, the Commission will issue guidelines on the setting of track access charges that boost affordable cross-border train travel. High and diverse charges can hinder the setting up of new services, making the market less attractive for new players.

Independent operators pay per kilometre

They are addressing a major issue, the cost to independent operators of using the rail system. If a private operator, such as Midnight Trains, (a hotel on rails they claim) wants to offer a service, they have to pay by the kilometre for the use of the existing tracks and support systems. Not surprisingly, one of the ways that national operators protect their ‘monopoly’ is to keep those charges high and ‘unattractive’ to the private sector. As trains cross over into a neighbouring country's rail network, their operators pay an access fee to cover the use of the track. Currently, EU law allows infrastructure companies to charge a premium on those access fees, but this could be about to change.

Actually calculating the existing cost per kilometre is a very complex issue. Costs are based on the length of the train, the amount of passengers it will carry, the time of day, the speed of the train, access to stations, in other words, expensive. It seems the EU is tackling this, and it’s critical in order to attract competition from the private sector. At the end of the day, to make a viable offer, you need consumer demand. The other factor to bear in mind is that you need far less passengers to operate a flight route at a profit. Around a hundred passengers can make a flight viable, planes are small compared to a train. Rail operators will need to attract passengers in their hundreds on each train to be viable.

Boosting night train services

What about night train services, does the Commission plan specific actions for them? This Action Plan aims at boosting long-distance and cross border rail services. As night train services travel long distances and often cross borders, they will benefit in full from the measures foreseen in this Action Plan. In 2022, the Commission will adopt updated Interpretative Guidelines on Regulation 1370/2007 that will include cross-border services.

Some of these lines now cross international borders and many countries are now connected by the high-speed railway network. More countries in Europe are expected to be connected in the coming years as Europe continues to invest heavily in the needed tunnels, bridges, and other infrastructure.

Lisbon-Madrid line

According to the EU, total investment for the project “Atlantic Corridor Madrid-Lisbon high-speed line for mixed traffic – track, electrification and installations phase II” is EUR 1 564 718 863. With the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributing EUR 264 950 000 through the “Multiregional Operational Programme for Spain” for the 2014-2020 programming period. The investment falls under the priority “Promoting sustainable transport and removing bottlenecks in key network infrastructure”.

Lisbon – Madrid, Development in three sections

The Madrid-Lisbon line will have a total length of 715 km, of which 465 km will be in Spain. Construction of the Spanish part of the line is split into three sections, which are at various stages of development. In addition to the Plasencia-Cáceres-Badajoz section, these are the section between Madrid and Plasencia and the 20 km stretch between Badajoz and the Portuguese border, of which 2.6 km is on Portuguese territory. The current project follows on from the laying of the track bed, initial track assembly works and the installation of civil protection and safety facilities in tunnels. All of these were carried out through previous EU-funded actions. Construction of the high-speed line – which will form part of the Atlantic Corridor of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) – will improve transport infrastructure in Spain. It will align it more closely with the rest of Europe as regards aspects such as track gauge. By strengthening connections between Madrid, Extremadura and Lisbon, and all along the Atlantic Corridor, the line will boost the competitiveness of the railways.

Seville to Faro, it’s only a dream

The Madrid to Lisbon project is well advanced, tracks are laid, and signalling is being completed. The much-vaunted Seville to Faro line is still only a dream. Not even the land has been acquired, let alone funded or planned. Click here for more information.

Is there a genuine demand for this service?

From the reaction to this subject, there is a great interest in the possibility of traveling by high-speed train with sleeper cars, but, and it’s a big but, it will only be provided if there is a substantial demand. Midnight Trains, for example, plan to start operation in 2024, and Porto is one of their future destinations. Strangely, Lisbon is not on their plans so far.

Airline operators can be far more flexible in their pricing and need a much lower passenger level to be profitable. Is there a genuine demand for long distance high speed rail?