Improving international passenger rail

International rail services can make a major contribution to greening the transport sector and realising sustainability goals. But how can international passenger transport by rail be stimulated?
high speed train moving through the city

Why improve international passenger rail services?

For the economic competitiveness of urban agglomerations in Europe it is crucial that international destinations are easily accessible. Although much has been invested in the construction of the European rail infrastructure during the last century, rail passenger transport has grown less rapidly than road and air. This is regrettable because compared with other modes of transport travelling by train is safer and better for the environment and climate.

So why do people not make more use of international trains? The Council has studied the many bottlenecks in the international rail system – not just from the viewpoint of the railway sector (infrastructure managers, train operators), but particularly from the perspective of the international traveller. The key question addressed in this advisory report is how to eliminate the factors that prevent better accessibility by rail. The advisory report focuses on the Netherlands.

Letter to the European Commission

Given the international element of the advisory report, the Council considered the relevant EU regulations and governance arrangements. In a letter to the European Commission on ‘Improving International Passenger Rail’ five European advisory councils call for a major boost to stimulate a shift to rail for international travel.

The letter addresses the lack of international cooperation due to the priority given to domestic needs, the need to improve travel information, ticketing and passenger rights, and the need for a corridor authority for cross-border train services. The advisory councils urge the Commission to link the post-pandemic recovery plans for the transport sector to the goals of the European Green Deal.

The letter, which was sent to the Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, is available for download on this page.

Advisory report

Bottlenecks for the international rail passenger

The Council’s analysis shows that although an extensive international rail network is available, in practice international rail passengers experience various constrains that discourage international train journeys.

Much more can be done with the existing infrastructure

The construction of new rail infrastructure is a way of improving accessibility by train within Europe. However, this is costly, difficult and time-consuming. It is something politicians are all too keen to talk about, but shy away from when it comes down to it. Moreover, the Council contends that much can be achieved with cheaper and quicker measures that make it possible for the existing rail infrastructure to be used more intensively, more efficiently and by more international services. Adaptation and changes to the rail infrastructure will eventually be needed, but then as part of a comprehensive approach.

Improve mobility services: information provision, ticketing and passenger rights

The international rail passenger will benefit from better information services, such as apps that give access to the services provided by all operators. Travellers will also benefit by making it easier to find and book international train tickets. Moreover, the Council feels that these tickets should be available earlier than is currently the case (often no more than three months before departure). Improvements are also needed in passenger rights, for example in the event of a missed connection.

Improve transport services: new international services and the train as an attractive option

It is important to encourage the introduction of new international transport services. The Council advises the government to actively seek out operators that are willing to run cross-border services. Further, the Council considers it essential to make international trains an attractive travel option that can compete better with other transport modes. This can be achieved by providing comfortable, rapid, direct services between the main metropolitan areas at fair and competitive prices.

Improve traffic services: more efficient capacity allocation and more use of information technology

Under the existing principles for capacity management it is very difficult to find room for international services. However, the Council thinks that more room can be found if the existing capacity is used more intelligently. For example, within the ‘basic hour pattern’ scheduling that is operated on the Dutch railway network there is room to increase the frequency of services on all international routes in the Netherlands. The introduction of information technology applications will also help to make more intensive use of the rail network.

Improve the infrastructure: invest in one eastward corridor

In the longer term, adjustments to the infrastructure will be necessary. The Council urges the government to invest in one eastern corridor. What the Council has in mind are adaptations to the existing tracks that will permit trains to travel at speeds from 160 to 200 km/hour. Unbundling regional, national and international rail transport can improve access to destinations in the Netherlands via international train services. Station capacity also needs to be looked at in connection with this.

International corridor approach

Providing international passenger services by train requires close cooperation, not only between countries, but also between the many parties working in the rail sector. The Council has attempted to provide insight into this complexity. There is a clear need for an improvement in international governance and a corridor approach for the main international connections. In the long term, the Council believes that efforts should be made to towards establishing a European authority for cross-border rail traffic.

Date of publication advisory report

The Council’s advisory report ‘Changing Tracks: Towards better international passenger transport by train’ was published on 1 July 2020 and presented to Stientje van Veldhoven, State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management.
The English translation of this advisory report will be made available on this webpage.


For further enquiries about the advisory report or the letter to the European Commission, please contact Tim Zwanikken, project lead: or +31 (0)6 5287 4404.