European Commission Proposes 2021 as the European Year of Rail

In order to meet the European Green Deal objectives in the transport sector, the European Commission has proposed that 2021 be the European Year of Rail.

This will involve a series of events, campaigns and initiatives that will promote rail as a sustainable, innovative and safe mode of transport. Throughout 2021 the goal will be to highlight rail’s benefits to people, the economy and the climate and to focus on the outstanding challenges to creating a true Single European Rail Area (SERA) without borders.

The European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Valean, said:

“There’s no doubt that railway transport means huge benefits in most areas: sustainability, safety, even speed, once it’s organised and engineered according to 21st century principles. But there’s also something more profound about railways: they connect the EU together not only in physical terms. Setting up a coherent and functional network across all Europe is an exercise in political cohesion. The European Year of Rail is not a random event. It comes at an appropriate time, when the EU needs this kind of collective undertaking.”

Rail Is Sustainable

In 2019 the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year was ‘climate emergency’ and with tireless campaigners such as Greta Thunberg keeping the issue rightfully in the public eye, using hashtags like #fridaysforfuture to organise and spread the message online. And rail must play a crucial part it how people and goods travel to address the climate emergency. It is the only mode of transport to have almost continuously reduced its carbon emissions since 1990 while transport volumes have gone up. In 2016 only 0.5 percent of carbon emissions in the transport sector came from rail, while carrying 11.2 percent of freight and 6.6 percent of passengers.

Furthermore, rail also connects people, regions and businesses throughout the EU and beyond. It showcases European engineering and forms part of the continent’s heritage and culture. In fact, engineering and environmentalism go hand-in-hand, as Director of Permanent Rail and Lecturer at NCATI Gareth Dennis said: “I’m already an environmentalist. That is precisely why I went into engineering. The greatest medical interventions have been engineering ones (potable water, sewerage, electricity), and I fully expect the greatest environmental interventions to be engineering ones too.”


The European Commission wants the European Year of Rail to boost the pace of rail modernisation. This will help make rail more popular than less environmentally friendly transport options.

Moreover, 2021 will be the first full year in which the rules agreed under the Fourth Railway Package will be implemented throughout the EU. 2021 also marks several rail anniversaries for the European Union: it is the 20th anniversary of the First Railway Package and the 175th anniversary of the first-ever rail link between two EU capitals (Paris-Brussels). It also marks 40 years of the TGV and 30 years of the ICE.

ICE and TGV side by side in Paris
ICE and TGV side-by-side in Paris

The European Year of Rail proposal has four main objectives:

  • To promote rail as a sustainable, innovative and safe transport mode (climate)
  • To highlight the European cross-border aspect of rail (social cohesion)
  • To enhance the contribution of rail to the Union economy, industry and society, addressing regional development, industrial competitiveness, sustainable tourism, innovation, employment, education, youth and culture, and improving accessibility for persons with disabilities
  • To contribute to promoting rail as an important element of the relations between the Union and neighbouring countries, and in particular the Western Balkans (international relations)

The European Green Deal

The European Commission set out a European Green Deal for the EU and its citizens in 2019. Its goal is climate neutrality by 2050. Transport contributes a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, meaning this sector is key to achieving that target. It has the target of reducing its emissions by 90 percent by 2050.

Consequently, the Commission is developing a strategy for sustainable mobility. One key priority is shifting a substantial amount of the 75 percent of inland freight currently transported by road on to rail and inland waterways.

The Commission’s proposal will now go to the European Parliament and Council for approval. The new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has adopted the Green Deal as one of her flagship policies.

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