Small Railway Lines in Europe: Transport/Europe #2

Should the « small lines » in the French railway network be shut down? It’s a question that concerns 9,000 km of railway lines – a third of the total network – and it has sparked a series of fierce debates in France over many years. Each time the issue is raised, it provides an opportunity to re-examine the importance of the railways in the national transport policy, the regional transport systems and the travel choices made by individuals.

Until three years ago, the answers to this question could be divided into two broad categories: the first was based on an accounting approach that simply recognised the disproportionate cost of rehabilitating lines where traffic had become insignificant. The second was grounded in the idea that these small lines should be used to deliver the public authorities’ regional planning projects. Caught between budget rationality and the need for regional planning (a very French debate), the future of the small railway lines seemed doomed as a result of financial constraints and the rigid way the rail network is managed.

The issue became topical once more in 2018 when two acts were being prepared to reform transport policy:

  • The New Railway Pact (loi pour un nouveau pacte ferroviaire), adopted in June 2018, is committed to organising the governance of rail companies. It transcribes the directive of the European Union’s Fourth Railway Package that opens up regulated regional passenger rail transport services to competition, as well as modifying the status of railway workers.
  • The Framework Law on Mobility (LOM : loi d’orientation des mobilités) adopted in December 2019, which updates inter alia the governance structure of transport services to help providers prepare for the energy transition; it establishes the possibility of transferring the management of the small lines, reclassified as « local lines », to the regions.

The regions, construction firms, transport operators and rolling stock manufacturers are today uniting around new opportunities: the regional local lines now offer great promise in terms of innovation with the aim of helping to deliver new impetus to the railways. The attrition of the rail network no longer looks inevitable.

Are small railway lines a specifically French category? While all the national rail networks have been competing with cars for nearly a century, have the EU States developed a differentiated management approach to their network?

At a time when the French rail system is once more conducting an in-depth review of the future of these small lines, TDIE sought the views of OPSTE on how eight European countries (Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Poland and Switzerland) characterise and organise the management of their small lines.

You can look at or download the Transport / Europe Newsletter No. 2: Small Railway Lines in Europe.

NB: this issue was produced and written based on information exchanged at the OPSTE meeting on July 7, 2020. In the case of France, some factors have changed in the meantime, notably with the signing of the decree implementing Article 172 of the LOM (Framework Law on Mobility) and the continuing process of negotiating memorandums of understanding between the State and regions.

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