Achieving net-zero mobility by 2050 – Actions to take right now

Article based on a discussion at Railway Summit 2021 virtual conference

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is the most significant challenge of our generation. But incremental change is not enough – we will only achieve these targets by taking action and scaling up innovation today. Could this be railroad transport’s big moment?


As part of the 10th International Railway Summit, public and private sector leaders discussed what the rail can do to make the European transport sector greener, faster. This is what we heard.


“We know that there is a clear link between the ability of the rail industry to innovate and the achievement of climate goals,” says Christian Kern, former Federal Chancellor of Austria.


But action is now urgent. 

If we just continue emitting what we are emitting today for six more years, we will have already used up more than our CO2 allowance in the run up to 2030. It is extremely important that we use our Covid recovery monies wisely now, and invest them in the types of solutions we want to see in five years.  
Michael Peter, CEO of Siemens Mobility

Scale up sustainable rail 

One area that needs investment is the development of alternative drives. Battery-driven trains such as the battery-powered train Desiro City Jet eco in Austria are great examples for emission-free rail journeys, and hydrogen pilots are not far behind. “There are about 3,000 diesel trains in Germany that could be made clean by battery and hydrogen trains,” says Michael Peter.


However, while these alternative drives are still being perfected, digitalization can already make a difference by modernizing existing infrastructure and increasing capacity through more efficient scheduling of trains.


Expansion of rail capacity is pivotal in achieving targets. The transport sector is responsible for about 25% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, and rail accounts for less than 0.5% of that. But much of its potential is still underexploited: only about 7% of passengers and 11% of goods travel by rail.


“Rail must modernize through digitalization and innovation,” says Adina Vălean, Commissioner for Transport, European Commission. “We need to show that the alternatives to the road are fast and reliable. We must also address missing links to improve multimodality and create a truly integrated transport system.”

Standardize across borders

Vălean’s point about integration is an important one – and it also applies across borders. Michael Peter says that connecting cities domestically and internationally by rail is crucial as an alternative to short-haul flights in Europe, but a lack of standardization is slowing progress.


“We need more political support for homologation across Europe to spur cross-border traffic,” he says. Homologation is the official certification of ‘roadworthiness’ for rolling stock and rail systems. He urges the implementation of the European Train Control System across Europe, which is the signaling and control component of the wider advanced digital traffic management initiative known as the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).


François Davenne, Director General of the International Union of Railways (UIC) agrees. “What we need is more standardization, in particular at the operational level, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time,” he says. “We have been collectively developing ERTMS for almost 20 years now, but we still have no real European network and we need to change this to move forward together faster.”


Davenne says a turning point for rail has arrived. The industry can start to overcome legacy systems through breakthrough technology: digitalization, 5G, artificial intelligence and the end of cyber risk are all enablers of automation and interconnectivity. 

In this difficult period we have to choose to finance transformational projects at a regional and global level. Transformational projects are those that will have a big impact on efficiency in the short term, such as digitalization and seamless traffic. Those projects will be a driver for the modal shift to rail and public transport in order to achieve the objective of the Green Deal.”  
François Davenne, Director General of the International Union of Railways (UIC) 

Transform the cities

Cites are high on the priority list for decarbonization, because they are hotspots for emissions, noise pollution and traffic congestion. 


“Cities hold many keys when it comes to the much-needed transport transformation and the decarbonization of the transport sector,” says Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General of POLIS Network. We need a radical shift away from the private car in our urban environments. And the need is higher than ever for sustainable mobility modes – public transport, active travel, shared mobility services – to join forces and offer an attractive alternative to the private car.”


But for this to progress, passengers have to be encouraged to use public transport – especially after the setback of Covid-19, which caused many to return to the safety of private cars. 

Get people onboard 

To attract passengers to trains, we need to solve ticketing and the first- and last-mile problems: multimodal journeys have to become easier.


“Each transport mode operates almost in isolation – planning and buying tickets for multimodal journeys remain cumbersome, and this must change,” says Vălean. She says there has been some progress with Mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platforms, but adds that, “These services are few and far between, which hinders the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of multimodality.”


MaaS and smart mobility platforms are key enablers for multimodal transport and seamless end-to-end journeys. But they have not “advanced to the extent that we would have liked,” admits Vancluysen. 

The first thing we need in order for MaaS to become possible is physical integration on the ground in our cities, interchanges and stations where the different modes come together and where you can easily switch from one to the other.
Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General of POLIS Network

Complete – not compete

Good integration between public transport and new mobility service providers is key to this multimodality.


This will require stakeholders to innovate business models and explore new types of public private partnership. “MaaS transit completes rather than competes,” explains Vancluysen.


The same is true for buses and trains, says André Schwämmlein, Founder of intercity bus service FlixBus. “A volume shift toward shared mobility is required, and combining buses and trains is an important step to get people out of their cars,” he says.

What we need in Europe is a single market where innovation can prosper to benefit the consumer. Once Covid is over people will want to travel again, and we should use the rebound to convince them to get on a sustainable path.
André Schwämmlein, Founder of intercity bus service FlixBus
Round-table participants

François Davenne, Director General, International Union of Railways (UIC)

Christian Kern, Former Federal Chancellor, Republic of Austria (moderator)

Michael Peter, CEO, Siemens Mobility

André Schwämmlein, Founder, FlixBus

Adina Vălean, Commissioner for Transport, European Commission (presentation only)
Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General, POLIS Network