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As Europe’s airlines get billions in COVID bailouts, is rail being left behind?

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In 2020 rail companies in the EU lost €26 billion, according to CER figures
In 2020 rail companies in the EU lost €26 billion, according to CER figures   -   Copyright  Michel Euler/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the transport industry in Europe, with flights and trains seeing unprecedented drops in passenger numbers over the past year.

But while the inevitable financial hit has been softened for the airline industry, with some €36 billion in government help, the rail industry is asking why it isn’t receiving the same level of support.

Critics of the aid being poured into airlines are worried that without attaching environmental conditions, emissions will return to pre-COVID levels when Europe gets back to normal.

European rail companies in trouble

In 2020 rail companies in the EU lost €26 billion, according to figures from the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), a trade body representing national railway carriers.

The start of 2021 - a year the EU dubbed the European Year of Rail - has not seen a change of fortunes for the rail sector either, as pandemic restrictions continue to decimate passenger numbers.

Eurostar is an example of a rail company in serious financial trouble and yet to receive state support.

"Disaster is possible," the company's managing director Jacques Damas said in January.

The rail industry has been calling out for more help throughout the pandemic, and seeing the billions in state aid being pumped into the aviation sector is raising eyebrows.

“So far we have state aid for airlines of an amount between €35 to €40 billion, while we have direct support for railways up to €7 billion. It’s approximate measurements but it gives you the size of support one sector is seeing compared to the other,” says Alberto Mazzola, CER’s Executive Director.

“What we are wondering is how we get out of the crisis and then what will be the position of the sector.”

He tells Euronews rail companies specialised in international travel, such as Eurostar, are in a “very difficult situation” with revenue down in some cases by 95 per cent.

“Domestic traffic has a reduction on average between 40 to 60 per cent, which is huge,” he adds.

“I understand the airlines are in a very difficult situation so there is an intervention to support them. We are also suffering in a difficult situation as an operator of transport and mobility, and we would like to get as much attention as airlines or even more.

“If we are thinking about the [EU’s] Green Deal and how we are going to exit from this COVID crisis in terms of transport and mobility, we should find that the railways should be in a better position.”

Rail and the Green Deal

The Green Deal is the EU’s policy plan to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 - and, in this context, questions are being asked about the EU granting permission for member states to bail out airlines without environmental conditions attached.

The European Commission gave the green light to France to provide state aid to Air France to the tune of €4 billion last week.

There were strings attached, but these largely concerned the EU’s rules on competition, and not allowing state aid to provide an unfair advantage over competitors.

“We saw last year a fall in airline pollution, down 64% last year, but we’re not going to lock in any of those emissions reductions in the long term if we continue bailing out the sector without strong environmental conditions attached to the money we’re giving it,” says Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at Transport & Environment.

The European Commission “hasn’t tried to force member states to impose greener conditions or greener guarantees” with the aid it has agreed to, she adds.

“Why should airlines receive billions of euros in support and not the railway sector? It seems more and more politically and socially untenable for some sectors to benefit from government aid when they were actually those who contributed the most pollution before COVID.”

A European Commission spokesperson told Euronews that one of the conditions attached to Air France receiving state aid is that the company will have to publish information on how the money is invested "including on how the use of the aid received supports the companies' activities in line with EU and national obligations linked to the green and digital transformation including the EU objective of climate neutrality by 2050".

It added that "it is up to member states to decide if they wish to grant state aid and, if so, to which sectors".

"In general, it is important that the rail sector receives support where needed, while ensuring at the same time that competition within the rail sector is preserved."

Further details of the EU’s Green Deal are to be thrashed out in June this year, which Dardenne sees as an opportunity to “hopefully address aviation emissions” and give a boost to the greener rail sector.

“Hopefully the Year of Rail will translate to governments shifting their priorities to making rail transport more accessible and affordable than air travel,” she said.

Euronews has contacted the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for comment.

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