The continent’s approach to rail liberalisation holds lessons for Britain

An NTV train crosses the Tiburtina station in central Rome. Image: Getty.

As universal truths go, it’s not far off “death and taxes”: Britain’s rail network is privatised, the service is abysmal, fares are stratospheric. To restore our railway as a network we can be proud of, it must be renationalised. And we know that will work, because continental European railways are cheap, punctual, pleasurable and nationalised. Right?

Wrong. The binary debate over the future of UK rail is now so entrenched that we have increasingly ceased to question its fundamental tenets. This retreat to dogmatic positions risks doing a grave disservice to the travelling public – and we urgently need to consider both our own railway and those in Europe in a much more nuanced light.

John Band has already knocked down a few shibboleths in his 2015 article on rail fares, so I won’t cover the same ground again. Suffice to say, looking at our own railway’s structure, government control is so pervasive that it is not really credible to claim it is private at all. As in Europe, the railway’s fixed assets (track, stations, signalling etc.) are in public hands, following the reclassification in 2014 of Network Rail as a government entity.

Franchises, meanwhile, are so tightly specified by the Department for Transport (DfT) that any room for entrepreneurial activity has been all but squeezed out. Yes, DfT really does tell operators how many of their trains can have a catering trolley.

Yet arguably even more pressing for UK rail policy is the need to understand the profound changes happening to Europe’s railways as market reforms take root. It is still perfectly possible to jump on a train in Paris, Rome or Munich and find that train is run by a public sector operator, which is often part of a state holding group which also includes the infrastructure manager: train operator Trenitalia and infrastructure manager RFI in the case of Italy, for example.

However, over the past 20 years, EU policymakers have been looking for ways to make the European rail network more competitive. Policy measures have mostly focused on technical harmonisation between disparate national rail networks, but opening up of rail services to competition has also been a key strand.

This liberalisation has been resisted for years in many member states – but we are now reaching a point where the tide is turning, and the widely held perception in Britain of ‘nationalised’ continental railways is increasingly inaccurate. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the misleading suggestion that somehow Deutsche Bahn, SNCF or NS, the Dutch parent of Abellio, are sitting at home chuckling as filthy lucre from the fares of hardworking British commuters trickles into the coffers.

Far from it: most, but not all, European countries have seen some degree of liberalisation.

Take Italy, for starters. On 7 February, Global Infrastructure Partners (owner of London’s Gatwick Airport) made a successful offer of €1·9bn to acquire a company called Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori.

Who is that, you ask? Well, NTV runs pointy red high speed trains up, down and across the country, mostly on the dedicated high speed rail network that Italy has been building since the 1960s. Serving destinations including Turin, Venice and Naples, the company runs 50 trains per day on the key business route between Milan and Rome. Using the Italo brand, NTV competes head to head with the public sector operator Trenitalia, and between them they have gained a large majority of the rail/air market between the two hubs.

Unlike most British train companies however, NTV has no franchise or contract with government. It uses the EU’s ‘open access’ rules, paying access charges to use the national network. Its services are genuinely entrepreneurial as a result: if they are not viable, they would not survive.

NTV was established in 2011 by a consortium of high profile investors led by Luca di Montezemolo, whom Formula 1 motor racing fans will know as a former Team Principal at the Ferrari team. (The Italo trains’ scarlet livery is not a coincidence.)

For a few years, the state incumbent sought to frustrate NTV’s ambition amid a lack of strong independent regulation. But NTV has expanded from a niche operator to a significant player, at least on the core inter-city axes. As a consequence, private competition has compelled Trenitalia to up its game.

NTV’s state of the art Alstom trains were soon matched by a rival fleet procured by Trenitalia from Bombardier and Hitachi. Both have a whopping four classes of seating and, naturally, top quality espresso in the buffet car. More importantly, the number of services available between major cities has grown, but the rivalry has kept prices down.


There are lessons for here for Britain. We also have open access players in the shape of Grand Central and Hull Trains, operating out of London King’s Cross. Yet neither has the scale of NTV in Italy, and the government is lukewarm at best about operators who exist outside the contractual headlock of a franchise. For advocates of renationalisation however, there is a major quandary: Hull Trains and Grand Central regularly top passenger satisfaction tables, which suggests that more entrepreneurial zeal, not less, could lead to better services, at least in the long-distance segment.

In Italy, the inter-city network has been opened up to competition, while regional trains are, for now, still run by the state. In Germany, the opposite is true. Almost 40 per cent of German regional trains are now run by companies other than Deutsche Bahn, while DB retains a near monopoly on long-distance routes. Regional rail operating contracts are typically let by regional authorities (usually the Bundesländer), rather than by central government – but just as in Britain, the trains themselves are increasingly leased from the private sector rather than owned by the state.

Trenitalia is the second largest operator in Germany, while many of the companies holding UK franchises are also active. Indeed, British companies like National Express have made major inroads: its chief executive said last year that German contracts were now more attractive to private operators than UK franchising.

Where British and German ‘franchising’ really diverge is in costs. Typically, when DB loses a contract to a competitor, the cost of operation goes down, with a positive impact on subsidy and therefore fares. In an extreme example, Go-Ahead (yes, parent of loathed Southern Rail) has agreed to run several routes around Stuttgart for a period of 13 years from 2019. That contract is costing the regional authority in Baden-Württemberg approximately half the amount per train-kilometre it was giving to DB under the previous agreement. A raft of improvements is planned, including new trains across the network. Yet with such a dramatic reduction in the cost base, the authority also has the option to hold down fares.

Once again, the implications for British rail policy are clear. We should be asking why German rail liberalisation is driving down operating costs while quality of service is broadly improving. Instead, we get increasingly simplistic assertions about the benefits of renationalisation, which hark back to an increasingly hazy recollection of British Rail.

The opening up of Europe’s networks to competition has polarised opinion across the sector, and debate will continue for years to come as to the pros and cons. Indeed, there are areas where the British system has a clear advantage over, say, Germany – for example, a unified ticketing system which allows booking between any two stations, irrespective of operator.

But please let us not labour anymore under romanticised ideas of ‘nationalised’ European rail based on experience from the odd long weekend away. The debate over the future of Britain’s railways deserves a better level of understanding – and there is much to learn from the European experience.

Nick Kingsley is managing editor of Railway Gazette International, the business magazine for the global rail industry. He tweets as @njak_100.

 
 
 
 

How can cities build a better bike culture? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.