Motorway investments outweighed rail by 66% in twenty years: study

European countries allocated around two thirds more money to roads than railways between 1995 and 2018, a period which saw the construction of an extra 30,000 km of motorways and a contraction of the rail network by over 15,000 km, according to a new study.

Carried out by Germany-based research groups the Wuppertal Institute and T3 Transportation at the request of environmental NGO Greenpeace, the study examined spending on road and rail in all EU countries, as well as Norway, Switzerland, and the UK.

Around €1.5 trillion was spent on road infrastructure, with €930 billion going to rail over the last decades – a difference of some €570 billion.

In a ranking of countries, Romania was shown to have the largest gap in investment levels, having put over 12 times as much into road expansion as its rail network since 1995.

Croatia had the second highest ratio, with 586% more funds flowing to roads than railways, while Poland was in third position, having invested 6.5 times more.

The greatest increase in motorway kilometres was observed in Spain, which expanded its road network by 8,623 km since 1995, far surpassing second position France, which saw an increase of 3,385 km.

The greatest motorway growth relative to network size was in Ireland, which boosted its roads by 1,321% between 1995 and 2020. Romania, which saw the highest gap between road and rail funding, increased its motorways by 714%.

Not all countries followed the trend of directing more investment to motorways, however. Between 1995 and 2018, Belgium invested 210% more into its railways than road network, with Austria and the United Kingdom also putting comparatively more funds into rail.

Lorelei Limousin, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace, said the decision to fund motorways while rolling back the rail network has contributed to greater car dependence across the continent, exacerbating the climate crisis.

“Governments and the EU must hit the brakes on this dismantling of our train lines, reopen disused tracks and invest in rail – and stop the massive subsidies for roads that wreck the climate, pollute the air and make people’s lives miserable,” she said in a statement.

The study concludes that the 60% expansion in motorways seen between 1995 and 2019 led to a 29% increase in demand for road transport in Europe.

The same period saw EU transport emissions increase by 15%, in contrast to the downward trend experienced by most sectors.

Greenpeace also decried the approximately €130 billion spent on airport infrastructure between 1995 and 2018 in Europe, highlighting the climate impact of flying.

Rural dwellers hurt by rail closures

Around 13,700 km of routes were closed to passenger trains in the period examined, while some 2,500 railway stations have been temporarily or permanently closed – a trend that mostly affects rural communities.

“Millions of people outside cities have no option but to own a car to get to work, take kids to school or access basic services, living in areas with little or no public transport. This is a direct result of governments dismantling local and regional rail networks while pouring money into roads,” said Limousin.

Germany was identified as having made the largest cuts to its rail network, shutting down 2,700 km of passenger railway lines since 1995.

Poland and Italy followed in the tally, closing 2,330 km and 1,831 km of rail lines respectively.

However, as the infrastructure has in many cases not been completely dismantled, more than half of the closed railways line could be reopened relatively easily, according to Greenpeace.

Narrowing gap

While the study identifies a clear preference among decision makers for road investment historically, an analysis of the data post 2018 shows a greater focus on rail investments, with the gap shifting from a two thirds lead for road investments to slightly over one third.

The change in priorities reflects an increased emphasis on reducing carbon emissions among the European political class over the past years, as combating climate change moved up the political agenda.

In the European Commission’s 2020 Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, the EU executive set a goal of doubling the amount of high-speed rail trips by 2030, with rail freight traffic doubling by 2050.

Shifting people and goods to rail is considered a means to quickly cut Europe’s carbon footprint – while road transport is responsible for around 72% of Europe’s transport emissions, rail constitutes less than 1%.

In a public recognition of rail’s green credentials, the European Commission declared 2021 the “European Year of Rail”, organising a series of events to promote the benefits of train travel over road or air.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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