Rail transport in Europe

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Privately owned multi-system locomotive designed for freight and passenger trains near the Danish-German border.
Passenger-km in the five largest countries from 1998 to 2020[1]

Rail transport in Europe is characterized by the diversity of technological standards, operating concepts, and infrastructures. Common features are the widespread deployment of standard-gauge rail, high operational safety and a high share of electrification. Electrified railway networks operate at a plethora of different voltages AC and DC varying from 750 to 25,000 volts, and signaling systems vary from country to country, complicating cross-border traffic.

The European Union aims to make cross-border operations easier as well as to introduce competition to national rail networks. EU member states were able to separate the provision of transport services and the management of the infrastructure by the Single European Railway Directive 2012. Usually, national railway companies were split to separate divisions or independent companies for infrastructure, passenger and freight operations. The passenger operations may be further divided to long-distance and regional services, because regional services often operate under public service obligations (which maintain services which are not economically interesting to private companies but nonetheless produce societal benefit), while long-distance services usually operate without subsidies.

A narrow gauge train at a station in Spain
A narrow gauge train at a station in Spain

Across the European Union, passenger rail transport saw a 50% increase between 2021 and 2022, and reached 245 billion traveled miles. The trend is expected to continue and rapid investments in European Union railways are underway.[2]



Overall only about 18% of European cargo moves via railways; in some countries, such as France, the percentage is much lower, but it is obviously higher in other countries, including Lithuania where over 70% of domestic cargo is transported by train.[3] The relative weakness of rail freight is due to the lower price of truck transport which externalizes a larger share of costs than rail,[4][5][6] as well as the high usage of coastal and inland shipping. By way of comparison, in the U.S., 38% of cargo (by ton-kilometer) moved via rail in 2000, primarily due to external factors such as geography.[7] Similarly Swiss railroads carry about 40% (by ton kilometres) of Swiss domestic freight[8] and even more than 70% of the (mostly international) Alp-crossing cargo traffic - 74.4% in the first half of 2021.[9][10] The New railway link through the Alps which includes the Gotthard Base tunnel, one of the longest tunnels in the world was built specifically to shift Alp-crossing freight traffic from road to rail.[11][12]

Impediments to trans-European freight trains[edit]

A big problem for long-distance international freight services – despite the European Single Market allowing freedom of movement of goods, capital, labor and people and the Schengen area drastically reducing internal border controls – is the variety of differing standards for electrification, loading gauge, signaling, driver certificates and even gauge. Finland (Russian gauge), Portugal and Spain (Iberian gauge) use their own broad gauges, as do the Baltic States and several non-EU members (mostly Russian gauge). Rail Baltica is an EU-funded project to provide a standard gauge rail link in and through the Baltic countries, potentially connecting to a Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel. While attempts to unify the divergent standards date back to at least the 1880s with the Conférence internationale pour l'unité technique des chemins de fer (international conference for the technical unity of railroads) in Bern, Switzerland, setting minimum standards for loading gauges (the so-called Berne gauge) and the so-called "Berne space" (the space reserved for railroad workers in buffer and chain couplers[13]), most standards still differ widely between and even within countries as many rules only apply to newly-built infrastructure, as much of Europe's rail infrastructure was built in the 19th century, and upgrading it would be costly and disruptive.

Couplers and automation[edit]

Another problem is that unlike aviation, where Aviation English is a de facto global standard with few non-English holdouts, rail operations virtually always use the local language, requiring train operators either to be polyglots[14] or necessitating a change of staff at every (language) border. Another impediment to freight rail in Europe is the coupling system commonly used. While the Scharfenberg coupler, a mostly automatic system, is now commonly used on passenger trains,[15] its relatively low limit on the maximum tonnage it can pull makes it unsuitable for most freight operations. While American freight railroads largely use Janney couplers, European freight trains primarily still use buffer and chain couplers, which require railway workers to screw each connection open and shut again during shunting, reducing speed and efficiency and increasing labor cost,[16] though unlike Janney couplers they allow for workers to adjust the slack between railcars.[17] There are plans to replace these couplers with a new digital automatic coupling system, but those have taken longer than expected and are still far from completion.[18][19] A pilot project regarding the digital automatic coupling system was launched by the German Federal Ministry of Transportation in 2020 and is to last until 2022.[needs update][20][21]

Train lengths and double stacking[edit]

Train lengths in Europe are limited by the size of passing loops and refuge sidings as well as the placement of signals.[22][23] There are plans to allow trains of lengths up to 740–750 meters to use the main freight lines by upgrading the requisite infrastructure,[24][25] with various construction projects to that end having already been completed.[26][27] 750 meters is still much shorter than the longest trains worldwide, with many freight railroads throughout the world routinely running significantly longer trains; however most European rail infrastructure is not built to allow for longer trains without severe disruption. In addition, longer trains are considered to be more dangerous, as they provide more opportunities for freight cars to derail and make brake applications slower. Therefore, shorter freight trains may actually be an advantage rather than a disadvantage if safety is the priority.[28]

Double stack rail transport, where two intermodal containers are stacked on top of another, either on flatcars or specifically designed well cars, is virtually unheard of in Europe as the loading gauge of most lines does not allow for it. While the Betuweroute in the Netherlands was built with height clearances allowing double stacking,[29] it does not (as of 2021) connect to any rail line that allows double stacking and no double stack container trains have ever run along it.


Unlike countries like United States, where mainline freight rail electrification is nonexistent, a large percentage of European freight trains are electrified.

Differences between countries[edit]

Electrification systems:
  750 V DC
  1.5 kV DC
  3 kV DC

The 2017 European Railway Performance Index ranked the performance of national rail systems as follows:[30]

  1. Tier One: Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and France.
  2. Tier Two: Great Britain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, the Czech Republic, Norway, Belgium, and Italy.
  3. Tier Three: Lithuania, Slovenia, Ireland, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Rail gauge[edit]

While most railways in Europe use 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge—in some other countries, like on the Iberian Peninsula, or countries which territories used to be a part of Russian Empire and Soviet Union: widespread broad gauge exists. For instance Eastern European countries like Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova, Belarus, Finland, and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) use a gauge width of 1,520 mm (4 ft 11+2732 in) or 1,524 mm (5 ft) (also known as Russian gauge). In Spain and Portugal 1,668 mm (5 ft 5+2132 in) (also known as Iberian gauge) is used. Ireland uses the somewhat unusual 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) gauge, referred to in Ireland as "Irish Gauge" (but is an island with no external cross-border links).


Likewise, electrification of lines varies between countries. 15 kV AC has been used in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden since 1912, while the Netherlands and France use 1500 V DC. France and Croatia also use 25 kV AC, Belgium, Italy and Slovenia use 3 kV DC. All this makes the construction of truly pan-European vehicles a challenging task and, until recent developments in locomotive construction, was mostly ruled out as being impractical and too expensive.

The development of an integrated European high-speed rail network is overcoming some of these differences. All high-speed lines outside of Russia, including those built in Spain and Portugal, use 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge tracks. Likewise all European high-speed lines, outside of Germany, Austria and Italy use 25 kV AC electrification (Electrification of high-speed rail in Italy is mixed 3 kV DC and 25 kV AC). This means that by 2020 high-speed trains can travel from Italy to the United Kingdom, or Portugal to the Netherlands without the need for multi-voltage systems or breaks of gauge — or they could, if they didn't have to commute from one high-speed line to the next over "classical" lines using a different voltage and/or frequency.

Train protection[edit]

Multiple incompatible train protection systems are another barrier to interoperability. A unified system, ETCS is the EU's project to unify train protection across Europe. The specification was written in 1996 in response to EU Directive 96/48/EC. ETCS is developed as part of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) initiative, and is being tested by multiple Railway companies since 1999. All new high-speed lines and freight main lines funded partially by the EU are required to use ETCS Level 1 or Level 2.

Loading gauge[edit]

The loading gauge on the main lines of Great Britain, almost all of which were built before 1900, is generally smaller than in mainland Europe, where the slightly larger Berne gauge (Gabarit passe-partout international, PPI) was agreed to in 1913 as a general minimum standard (individual lines can and do adhere to larger loading gauge standards) and came into force in 1914.[31][32] As a result, British (passenger) trains have noticeably and considerably smaller loading gauges and smaller interiors, despite the track being standard gauge.

This results in increased costs for purchasing trains as they must be specifically designed for the British network, rather than being purchased "off-the-shelf". For example, the new trains for HS2 have a 50% premium applied to the "classic compatible" sets which will be able to run on the rest of the network, meaning they will cost £40 million each rather than £27 million for the captive stock (built to European standards and unable to run on other lines), despite the captive stock being larger.[33] Similarly prior to the construction of High Speed 1 (then also known as the "Channel Tunnel Rail Link") to continental European standards, the first generation Eurostar trains were required to have several custom modifications compared to the TGV trains they are based on, including narrower loading gauge and provision for third rail electrification as used in southeast England. The successor Eurostar e320 is an almost "off the shelf" Siemens Velaro and is thus incompatible with most of the British legacy rail network but can run on most of Europe's high speed rail network.

Railway platform height[edit]

Application of the EU standard heights for new construction; Green = 550 mm, Blue = 760 mm, Turquoise = both, dark gray = New builds in other heights than the EU standards

The European Union Commission issued a TSI (Technical Specifications for Interoperability) that sets out standard platform heights for passenger steps on high-speed rail. These standard heights are 550 and 760 mm (21.7 and 29.9 in). As the map indicates, there are several areas where 550 mm and 760 mm platform heights overlap and many trains serve stations with platforms of both heights posing challenges for step-free access. Where trains optimized for 760 mm platforms have to serve 550 mm platforms (or vice versa) accessibility is often limited.[34][35][36] Due to path dependency a mixture of platform heights will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

Cross-border operation[edit]

Operational high-speed lines in Europe

The main international trains operating in Europe are:

  • Enterprise (Republic of Ireland & Northern Ireland (UK))
  • Eurostar (United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany)
  • EuroCity/EuroNight (conventional trains operated by nearly all Western and Central European operators, with the notable exception of the UK and Ireland)
  • Nightjet (Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands)
  • Frecciarossa (Italy, France)
  • Intercity Direct (Netherlands, Belgium)
  • InterCityExpress (Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria)
  • TGV (France, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Luxembourg)
  • Railjet (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Czechia, Italy, Slovakia)
  • Elipsos (France, Spain) France-Spain services discontinued since 2013, Elipsos operator now defunct
  • Trenhotel (France, Spain, Portugal) All trenhotel services discontinued, including Hendaye-Madrid-Lisbon and Barcelona-Galicia services since 2020,the onset of the covid-19 pandemic
  • Oresundtrain (Denmark, Sweden)
  • SJ 2000 (Sweden, Norway, Denmark)
  • NSB (Sweden, Norway)
  • Allegro (Finland, Russia) service suspended since 27 March 2022 due to sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine
  • Belgrade-Bar Railway (Serbia, Montenegro)
  • Midnight trains : private operator planning to open up new routes across Europe such as Paris to Rome, Porto, Madrid/Barcelona, Venice, Edinburgh, among other destinations.
  • European Sleeper: private operator based in Belgium and the Netherlands planning to expand by 2024-2025

Additionally, there are a lot of cross-border trains at the local level. Some local lines, like the Gronau to Enschede line between Germany and the Netherlands, operate on the signaling system of the country the line originates from, with no connection to the other country's network, whilst other train services like the Saarbahn between Germany and France use specially equipped vehicles that have a certificate to run on both networks. When there is an electrification difference between two countries, border stations with switchable overhead lines can be used. Venlo railway station in the Netherlands is one such example, the overhead on the tracks can be switched between the Dutch 1500 V DC and the German 15 kV AC, which means a change of traction (or reconfiguring a multiple-voltage vehicle) is necessary at the station. On the other hand, an increasing number of locomotives can change voltages "on the fly" without stopping, usually with temporarily lowered pantographs, for instance on the viaduct of Moresnet where freight trains change voltages between Belgian 3 kV DC and German 15 kV 16.7 Hz. A third possibility concerns networks using voltages of the same order of magnitude, such as Belgium (3 kV DC) and the Netherlands (1.5 kV DC): Belgian trains to Maastricht or Roosendaal (Dutch stations located near the border) can use the lower Dutch voltage, albeit with reduced power, on the short stretch from the border to their Dutch terminal station and back. Increasingly the European Union mandates unified standards (see below) for newly built high speed lines to allow smoother international passenger services.


European rail subsidies in euros per passenger-km for 2008[37]

EU rail subsidies amounted to €73 billion in 2005.[38] Subsidies vary widely from country to country in both size and how they are distributed, with some countries giving direct grants to the infrastructure provider and some giving subsidies to train operating companies, often through public service obligations. In general long-distance trains are not subsidized.

The 2017 European Railway Performance Index found a positive correlation between public cost and a given railway system's performance and differences in the value that countries receive in return for their public cost. The 2015 and 2017 performance reports found a strong relationship between cost efficiency and the share of subsidies allocated to infrastructure managers. A transparent subsidy structure, in which public subsidies are provided directly to the infrastructure manager rather than spread among multiple train-operating companies, correlates with a higher-performing railway system.[30]

The 2017 Index found Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland capture relatively high value for their money, while Luxembourg, Belgium, Latvia, Slovakia, Portugal, Romania, and Bulgaria underperform relative to the average ratio of performance to cost among European countries.[30]

Total railway subsidies by country[edit]

Country Subsidy
(€ billions)
 Germany 17.0 2014[39]
 France 13.2 2013[40]
 Italy 7.6 2012[41]
 Spain 5.1 2015[42]
 United Kingdom 9.2 2016[43]
  Switzerland 4.3 2012[44]
 Belgium 2.8 2012[45]
 Netherlands 2.5 2014[46]
 Austria 2.3 2009[47]
 Denmark 1.7 2008[48]
 Sweden 1.6 2009[49]
 Poland 1.4 2008[48]
 Ireland 0.91 2008[48]


Liberalization of European passenger rail market

Fourth Railway Package attempts liberalization of domestic passenger services in an attempt to reduce European rail subsidies.

Harmonizing rules[edit]

As mentioned above, historically rules and standards on European railroads varied widely and thus the European Union has tried to harmonize and standardize those towards a single common European set of rules. The advent of High Speed Rail added to the "classical" problems of railway electrification standards, gauge, loading gauge and "classical" signaling the additional problem of train protection systems, which are necessary for any train exceeding the speed limit of legacy signaling (79 mph in the United States, 160 km/h (99 mph) in much of continental Europe and 125 mph in Great Britain). Virtually every European country with significant high speed rail ambitions developed its own, incompatible, standard, be it German LZB, French TVM or Italian BACC. As there was resistance to choosing any of the pre-existing systems as a basis for a new European standard the European Train Control System or ETCS was developed and is now mandatory for newly built high speed lines receiving EU funding.[50][51]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ McClanahan, Paige (2024-01-04). "In Europe, a Rail Renaissance is Underway". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2024-01-09. Retrieved 2024-01-13.
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  5. ^ "30 by 2030 Rail Freight strategy to boost modal shift" (PDF).
  6. ^ Antoine Boudet; Lionel Steinmann (27 July 2020). "L'Etat une énième fois au chevet du fret ferroviaire". Les Echos (France) (in French). Retrieved 13 April 2021. C'est, d'ailleurs, partant du constat que la part de marché du fret ferroviaire en France n'a cessé de s'éroder au profit du transport routier de marchandises, pour tomber à 9 %, soit cinq fois moins qu'en 1974 et environ la moitié de la moyenne européenne
  7. ^ Furtado, Francisco Manuel Bastos Andrade (2013). "U.S. and European Freight Railways: The Differences That Matter" (PDF). Journal of the Transportation Research Forum. 52 (2): 65–84. Retrieved 20 June 2023.
  8. ^ "Deutschland bremst Eisenbahn-Güterverkehr durch Europa aus". 4 September 2020.
  9. ^ "Güterverkehr in der Schweiz – Höchster Bahnanteil durch die Alpen seit 25 Jahren". 16 September 2021.
  10. ^ "LOK Report - Schweiz: Güterverkehr durch die Alpen - Höchster Bahnanteil seit 25 Jahren".
  11. ^ "Verkehrsverlagerung".
  12. ^ Saladin, G. (2010). "NEAT ist der Schluessel der Schweizer Verlagerungspolitik". Internationales Verkehrswesen. 62 (7/8).
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  14. ^ "Dresden bis Prag".
  15. ^ "Scharfenbergkupplung". 15 May 2016.
  16. ^ "Automatisches Trennen von Güterwagen mit Schraubenkupplung | Eurailpress Archiv".
  17. ^ Mercer, Shane. "North American rail safety 'pretty bad' compared to Europe". Canadian Occupational Safety. KM Business Information Canada Ltd. Retrieved 20 June 2023.
  18. ^ "EVG fordert mehr Tempo bei der Einführung der Digitalen Automatischen Kupplung". 26 July 2020.
  19. ^ "European digital automatic coupler deployment planned by 2030".
  20. ^ "Start – Pilotprojekt Digitale Automatischen Kupplung (DAK)". DAC4 (in German). Retrieved 2023-09-19.
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  22. ^ "Maximale Zuglängen im europäischen Schienenverkehr".
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  28. ^ Mercer, Shane. "North American rail safety 'pretty bad' compared to Europe". Canadian Occupational Safety. KM Business Information Canada Ltd. Retrieved 20 June 2023.
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  30. ^ a b c "the 2017 European Railway Performance Index". Boston Consulting Group. 8 January 2021.
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  32. ^ "A Word on Loading Gauges". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2016-01-31.
  33. ^ "HS2 Cost and Risk Model Report" (PDF). p. 15.
  34. ^ Ehrenstein, Claudia (14 July 2018). "Deutsche Bahn: Wie hoch soll ein Bahnsteig sein?". Die Welt.
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  36. ^ "21 Zentimeter bergen Unmut auf allen Seiten". 10 November 2017.
  37. ^ European Rail Study (PDF) (Report). Brussels. 2013. pp. 6, 44, 45. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-05-03. 2008 data is not provided for Italy, so 2007 data is used instead
  38. ^ Size, structure and distribution of transport subsidies in Europe (PDF). European Environment Agency (Report). 2007. ISBN 978-92-9167-918-8. ISSN 1725-2237.
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  43. ^ "GB rail industry financial information 2015-16" (PDF). 21 February 2017. Retrieved 22 February 2017. £6.7 billion, consisting of £4.3billion to network rail, and £2.4billion to train operating companies (TOC) using average of £1=1.366 euros for 2015-16
  44. ^ "Kosten und Finanzierung des Verkehrs Strasse und Schiene 2012" (PDF) (in German). Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Statistical Office. 10 December 2015. pp. 6, 9, 11. Retrieved 2015-12-20. 4.7 billion Swiss francs
  45. ^ "Implementation of EU legislation on rail liberalisation in Belgium, France, Germany and The Netherlands" (PDF).
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  47. ^ "ANNEX to Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EC) No 1370/2007 concerning the opening of the market for domestic passenger transport services by rail" (PDF) (COMMISSION STAFF WORKING DOCUMENT: IMPACT ASSESSMENT). Brussels: European Commission. 2013. pp. 6, 44, 45. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-05-03. 2008 data is not provided for Italy, so 2007 data is used instead
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  50. ^ "ERA recommends the implementation of the ETCS Baseline 3". 19 July 2012.
  51. ^ "ETCS". 4 March 2022.

External links[edit]