How can transport infrastructure be used to connect Europe socially and economically?

, by Thomas Atkin-Withers

How can transport infrastructure be used to connect Europe socially and economically?
BB 22385 / X 72633-34 ETCS (European Train Control System)A / Wikimedia Commons

It has been 46 years since the last proper ‘Orient Express’ train thundered across our continent, linking some of its great cities, from Paris to Istanbul via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Since then, we have found our continent increasingly isolated from itself.

Even in the early 90’s, you could board a train in Berlin and awake 2 days later in Sofia. Now, much of our continent (especially the Balkans) is inaccessible by rail.

Politics, always politics

As we strengthen our union and bring more nations into the fold, and as we aspire to a single United Europe, we must remember one key fact: freedom of movement is only truly achieved when everyone can travel, however they wish.

Much of our rail network lies abandoned or destroyed, either by political apathy or by conflict. In seeking a United Europe, we must seek to rebuild connections between our nations and regions, so that no matter where people live, they can tangibly experience all the benefits of a truly United Europe.

We have already seen the effects of a disconnected Europe in Brexit. London, a city connected to the heart of Europe, voted to remain during the Brexit vote in 2016, whilst cities in the North of England, a region poorly connected to Europe since the cancellation of the Regional Eurostar and Nightstar projects, voted to leave. While other factors will not have aided the Pro-European movement, this disconnect will not have helped.

Investment, Finally

Of all nations, Serbia can be a blueprint on how we seek to rebuild vital connections. In the past few months, the line linking Belgrade and Novi Sad to Budapest in Hungary has reopened after upgrades, helped in part by a €1.9bn loan, though not from the EU, but from China, as part of the ‘Belt and Road’ Project.

The EU is now catching up, providing a €2.2bn financial package to upgrade the Belgrade to Nis section of the new ‘Corridor X’ project, upgrading and rebuilding lines from Salzburg to Thessaloniki, as part of the ‘Pan European Corridors’ initiative, first announced in 1994.

This is a good start, but this cannot be allowed to be a blip. Funding to restore lines liking cities like Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Belgrade, Skopje and Thessaloniki must increase, as must political efforts to resurrect International passenger services

We must also speed up these projects. The Pan European Corridors project was first announced in 1994, 30 years ago. We cannot afford to wait another 30.

In times of Crisis

As we face the 21st century’s greatest crisis, the Climate Crisis, we need to create more sustainable ways for our people to see and experience our continent, and all it has to offer. As we’ve seen with the return of the Night Train, Europeans are interested in low-stress, environmentally friendly modes of transport.

As said in a 2007 report on Transport Emissions and Climate Change, “Policies are required to encourage the shift to other transport modes, but will ultimately fail unless significant investment is used to make the alternatives viable and attractive.”

But investment in transport infrastructure doesn’t just help curb emissions, it serves as a way to exchange cultures and ideas. There is no better example than the ‘Discover EU’ scheme. Created to allow European young adults the chance to see their continent, it gives young people in EU and associated Erasmus+ nations the chance to travel, make memories and talk to people from all walks of life from across our continent.

Discover EU is an amazing scheme for European Unity, as it allows our young people to see all of Europe, not just the large cities, and at the same time allowed associated non-EU states youth to see the benefits of a closer, more integrated Europe.

A Union of Equals

As we move towards a United Europe, we must strive for that union to be a union of equals, where each nation, region and people group are on a level playing field. This means not just linking the current hubs of Europe, the likes of Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Rome, but all our regions.

To see the path we need to take, we look to a nation that (for better and worse) has been at the centre of European history for the last century, Germany.

After the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, a series of projects, dubbed ‘Verkehrsprojekte Deutsche Einheit’ or ‘German Unity Transport Projects’ began, linking the former East German states to the West. Rail projects alone totalled €20.3bn between 1991 and 2013. We need this on a Europe-wide scale, linking our regions to one another, rather than simply via the largest and wealthiest cities.

We need a new group of ‘European Unity Transport Projects’ linking the least connected parts of our union to the heart of Europe, and to each other. This goes for our negotiating candidate states as well. Albania, Moldova. Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Bosnia need to be connected to our union before they join, so their people can already see the benefits membership brings. That is the only way our union will be able to continue to expand into, and hold on to, new members. For Georgia, Kosovo and Türkiye, links with the EU should be supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), until such a time when Accession negotiations begin, or in Türkiye’s case, resume.

One Network

Finally, as we interlink our transport infrastructure, we must simplify it. Anyone who’s been interrailing will tell you how complicated it can be to book tickets. We need a network that is truly unified, and that means one app to buy tickets across Europe, a united, updated timetable accessible to all, and a simplified basic information system, so no matter what language a passenger speaks, they know what is happening and where to go.

None of this is easy, or cheap, but our union’s future relies on links between member states, social links, economic links and environmental links. It has now been over 30 years since the Iron Curtain fell, and the people of Central and Eastern Europe were allowed to decide their own fates.

But still, 3 decades later, the shadow still looms, we can still see the breaks in our infrastructure from when our continent was divided. Quality of Life, relative poverty, unemployment, life expectancy and more are still lower in the former Eastern Bloc.

This is one of the burning injustices of our time, and for the sake of our union and its people, we must build bridges, repair cracks and lift everyone up.

And to do that, we start with infrastructure, we start with railways.

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