Regional & suburban rail services are more important than you might think

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They serve 90% of annual rail passengers, contribute to vital EU targets, and link cities on the TEN-T network. 

When speaking of public transport, we most often focus on the multitude of transport operations that serve the inhabitants of cities, or suburbanites who commute. What’s often forgotten is the role that public transport plays in connecting cities and their suburban areas with other destinations. Or what about connecting cities to each other, through links with the TEN-T network core national and EU transport networks?

This is regional and suburban rail (RSR).

Regional and suburban rail services serve passengers in and around conurbations as well as within regions. They typically feature the following characteristics:  

  • an average distance between stations of 1-25 km
  • a commercial speed of 40-60 km/h
  • the typical one-way passenger trip takes less than 1h
  • there is a high proportion of unstaffed stations (in some cases above 50%)
  • these services can (partially) operate on single track lines

Most of them are subject to public service obligations contracts, which are signed between the rail companies and the relevant national/local public authorities.

Clear, consolidated EU level data on RSR is not always available, a reflection of the current legal provisions and of the different national and regional approaches to the design and operation of such services. This sometimes casts a shadow over their importance and benefits to both the economy and citizens’ quality of life. The most comprehensive study to date is the UITP “Suburban and Regional Railway Landscape in Europe” report (2006), which is currently being updated (to be released in the second half of 2015).

The data show that these companies operate services on more than 180,000 kilometres of track, and serve to two-thirds of the EU population. RSR companies employed approximately 360,000 staff, roughly one quarter of the 1.2 million people employed in the rail sector as a whole (all personnel involved in long distance, freight and infrastructure activities were excluded from the RSR figure).

The total number of passengers carried by RSR represents by far the biggest part of all rail trips in Europe: according to UITP and UIC statistics, they account for about 90% out of the total number of rail passengers and 50% of the total number of passenger kilometers per year. All these figures imply jobs that cannot be relocated, direct economic contributions (such as ticket sales, taxes and infrastructure charges, etc.), local and sustainable investments in infrastructure, etc.

© Flickr / Mikhail (Vokabre) ShcherbakovAbout 80% of the passengers using regional and commuter rail services were in EU15 states, the highest numbers being, in order, in Germany, France, the UK and Spain. Taking population into account, the largest ‘consumer’ of rail services in the whole of Europe was by far Switzerland (with 49 trips per person yearly), followed by Luxembourg (27 trips) and Austria (25). France and Germany ranked equal with 21 trips per inhabitant per year. These figures show not only the importance of RSR services and their relevant rail network(s), but also the attention that they receive from policy-makers in these countries. One can note that these countries are often seen as examples not only for the development of the rail sector, but also for infrastructure planning and developments in general.

Moreover, these figures support a number of EU and national targets, especially those outlined in the European Commission’s White Paper ‘Roadmap to a single European transport area — Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system’ (COM(2011) 144 final):

  • no more conventionally-fuelled cars in cities;
  • a 50 % shift in medium-distance inter-city passenger and freight journeys away from roads to either rail or waterborne transport;
  • all of which should contribute to a 60 % cut in transport emissions by the middle of the century

The figures speak for themselves. However, there are a number of other benefits of RSR that are not always clear at first sight, including: 

  • Speed and capacity: it is well known that railways provide the highest capacity of passenger and freight capacity in land transportation. And RSR, together with metro operations, is the best example in the case of passengers’ transport due to its capacity and frequency (frequency increased due to the available technologies on the market, especially signalling – ETCS/ERTMS). Thus RSR helps mitigate congested traffic on roads or highways, and often provides a direct link to city centres. As it has been reported that traffic congestion costs the EU on average 1% of its yearly GDP (Appendix 5 of the Impact Assessment accompanying the White Paper, SEC(2011) 358.), RSR is clearly the best solution for solving this problem.
  • Safety: railways have the best percentage among land transport modes regarding safety. In 2011, 31 deaths from railway accidents occurred in the entire European Union compared to over 30,268 deaths from road accidents (EU transport in figures, 2013).
  • Environmental-friendliness: railway transport is responsible for only 2% of the total transport greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 73% coming from the road section (figures ERA). It is the cleanest of the mass transport modes in land transportation. Ensuring a high availability and usage of rail services will help the EU achieve its energy/environmental targets.

These data show that the suburban and regional rail operations foster the co-modal and multimodal approach to passenger transportation in Europe. It is one of the best examples in which different transport modes can cooperate instead of cannibalising each other, if proper policies are implemented by the decision-makers. Adding the economic (and legislative) necessity of building the TEN-T network and linking it with the main demographic and economic centres, RSR cannot be seen as a merely secondary option in the EU land transport landscape.

It is therefore a problem that RSR services face a number of challenges within the EU. On the one side there are the ‘business as usual’ delayed investments, on the other side there are the extreme measures such as leaving the infrastructure to decay until it can no longer be used (the case in Bulgaria) or planning to scrap thousands of kilometres of the rail network (as is planned by the Romanian government). Such conditions clearly show that greater attention must be paid to this rail (sub)sector, at both EU and national levels.

  • For more information contact the author, Mihai Barcanescu, EU Project Manager at mihai.barcanescu(at)
  • For even more in-depth analysis of the economic impact of public transport, visit our Focus+ section here

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