How to get on track: The role of rail in reducing carbon emissions

Unlocking rail's potential in the climate challenge requires cohesive EU policies and infrastructure investments.

Mar 18, 2024

On Wednesday, March 13th, the EU Parliament voted in favour of expanding the rail infrastructure in Europe. Considering that the length of the railway network has actually decreased over recent decades, this vote will hopefully mark a significant turning point in Europe's approach to the transportation sector. 

This is particularly important as transitioning from road and air travel to rail holds substantial potential for reducing carbon emissions, and the need for change in the sector is undeniable, as the United Nations released a report in September 2023 where it was starkly highlighted that the world is not on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. 

With the European Union setting ambitious targets to contribute towards those goals, the critical question is how we can actively attain them. Volt believes that rail should be a part of the answer. 

How can rail help reduce carbon emissions?

The transportation sector contributes to 25% of carbon emissions in the EU. Of this total, 72% of emissions are from motorised road transport (cars and trucks), 13% from aviation and only 0.4% from rail transport. 

What makes this sector even more interesting is the astonishing differences in footprint between the available modes of transport. The International Energy Agency states that rail emissions account for 7% of global passenger-km and 6% of tonne-km, while only accounting for 1% of transport emissions. 

This implies significant potential for reducing carbon emissions by transitioning cargo and passenger transport to rail, yet the current Green Deal legislation places relatively minimal focus on encouraging behavioural change, aside from carbon pricing for aviation.

What is holding back rail transport today?

Rail transportation frequently encounters competitive disadvantages. As per a Greenpeace report released in July 2023, the average cost of train travel in the EU is double that of flying. Furthermore, trains are slower in 77% of instances. In freight transportation, railways excel in carrying heavy, bulky cargo over long distances, yet they are less competitive when it comes to transporting lighter or time-sensitive shipments. In such cases road freight is often preferred. 

Considering the clear advantages of rail transport in particular situations, it makes one wonder what is needed to support strategic mode shifts in areas where rail is not yet so strong. This becomes even more pertinent considering that economic returns from rail investments are substantial; a study conducted by Oxford Economics in 2021 revealed that such investments contributed up to 2.5 times the initial investment to the broader economy.

How to get on track?

To ensure rail lives up to its carbon reduction promise, Volt proposes a comprehensive set of actions which can be found in the Electoral Moonshot Programme. Central to these proposals is creating a European Transport Authority (ETA), with the aim of consolidating decision-making processes and the responsibility to oversee the cross-border investments necessary for improved efficiency and connectivity.

Harmonising infrastructure and setting up a high-speed rail network connecting all EU cities with over 100,000 residents are part of these investments. Additionally, a unified rail ticketing platform should be developed with the aim to enhance the travel experience, by enabling smooth booking for both national and cross-border trains, and providing real-time updates on delays, costs, cancellations, and passenger rights. 

As the world grapples with the urgent need to meet the climate targets, Volt advocates for a pivotal shift towards rail transportation as a solution to reduce carbon emissions. The tracks to a greener, more sustainable future are laid out: now’s the time to jump on board.   

Article by Rob Verschoor