Europe's mania for railways is wasting our money


(Financial Times 14th March 2007)

The economist JK Galbraith said: "Conventional wisdom is made up of ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability." The field of transport abounds with them. Here are just a few: road traffic is heading for gridlock and another solution has to be found; there are too many lorries on our roads; goods need to be transported by rail; the result of increasing road and air traffic is a constant degradation in air quality; aviation is noisy; Europe’s borders are transport bottlenecks.

All these ideas are appealing and are shared virtually unanimously; but they will not stand up to analysis. Sadly, Brussels has swallowed them and the European Union is already feeling the ill effects.

It is not by accident that road travel is embraced in unprecedented proportions. Of the €1,100bn ($1,300bn) spent annually by individuals and businesses on land transport in the 15 pre-enlargement EU member states, €1,050bn goes on road transport and less than €50bn on rail and waterways. There is a very good reason for this preference. The combination of door-to-door networks and turning front wheels offers almost unlimited potential in a seamless chain of logistics. To be competitive globally, European companies need to specialise in products of ever increasing value delivered in a just-in-time way. Aviation and road transport have replaced rigid and wasteful transport modes.

That goes for goods as much as for passengers. Rail freight transport across borders moves more slowly than Finnish ice-breakers and is bound to remain Lilliputian. Goods wagons travel less than 11bn km annually, compared with the 700bn km travelled by lorries and vans. It is self-deluding to seek, at great cost to the taxpayer, to transfer traffic
from road to rail.

Investing in roads is pivotal for future growth. It is also good for public finances. Every year, the taxman collects from the road sector about €330bn for European treasuries, while total spending on roads amounts to less than €l00bn. This is in stark contrast to rail transport, which survives only thanks to massive subsidies. According the International Union of Railways, rail passenger revenue amounts to €45bn, compared with spending of €105bn.

What about safety? To tackle road accidents, we need to promote safer cars, modernise road infrastructure and make drivers obey traffic rules. Since rail traffic is just a fraction of that on the roads, accidents cannot be reduced by attempting to shift people or goods to trains.

Prevailing ideas on air quality are no more compelling. Thanks to progress in engines and fuels, toxic emissions from a modern car are only about 5 per cent of those from one built two decades ago and within 10 years or so will have nearly disappeared, according to the European Commission. We have to keep on improving vehicles because a meaningful
alternative to roads does not exist. As for aircraft nuisance, noise at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport has halved while traffic has doubled.

Last, traffic volumes are significantly lower at international borders than within countries. This calls into question the rationality of "grand projects" for international rail links. The Trans-European Transport Network, part-financed by the EU, is a good idea in itself. However, it cannot be justified that two-thirds of this budget goes to railway projects which meet less than 5 per cent of our mobility needs. In the same spirit, the Lyon-Turin rail tunnel is presented as a solution to traffic jams; in fact it is an irresponsible waste of tens of billions of euros of public money. At the same time there is a €1bn shortfall for the crucial Galileo satellite positioning project. Our priorities are upside down.

We do not realise the challenges EU is facing in an open world because we keep on neglecting the cost-effective functioning of our society. The smooth running of the logistical chain is decisive for competitiveness. To achieve this, all transport modes should be treated equally in financial terms - let the customer decide. After all, carrying passengers and goods to their destination is what counts. To quote Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader: "It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as
it catches mice".

The mid-term review of EU transport policy will soon reveal if we continue operating on false ideas. So far, the sad answer has been yes. But now many beg to differ. That is why I have founded an association, Mobility for Prosperity in Europe, which seeks to dispel deep-rooted myths and put logistics at the forefront. One thing is certain: Europeans deserve a better deal from their leaders.

Ari Vatanen
The writer, a former rally driver, is a member of the European Parliament

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