The Spanish railway industry faces the new Safe, Sustainable and Connected Mobility Strategy


The Spanish railway industry

The Spanish railway industry has a long tradition in our country. With some 30,000 direct jobs and a turnover of more than 15 billion euros (more than 8% of the industrial GDP), it is a key and driving sector for both our economy and our country image. It is also an innovative sector that invests, on average, 2% of its turnover in R&D&I, and an export booster for small and medium-sized enterprises through the driving industries, whose export has reached 90% in some cases.

Thanks to all this, our companies are today a world leader in the design, construction, and maintenance of railway networks, equipped with the latest technologies, which allow us to talk about well-being and social cohesion, sustainability, and safety.

Our intention with this document is to draw attention to the challenges and opportunities arising in the context of the ambitious Sustainable Mobility Strategy that the Government is designing, and whose legislative body, the Sustainable Mobility and Transport Funding Act, will regulate, and at the heart of which should be a mode of transport that excels in environmental and economic aspects: the railway.

The contribution of the railway industry to the Mobility Strategy

The transport sector is one of the largest consumers of energy and one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). In Spain, the transport sector is the main CO2 emitter with more than 27% of the emissions.

On the contrary, and according to the European Environment Agency, railway transport is the mode of collective transport with the lowest-emission per passenger and, therefore, it plays a decisive role in the fight against climate change.

As a conclusion, only by promoting railway as the backbone of national transport and sustainable mobility policies can the objectives set by the European Union (Green Deal) and the International Community (SDP – Sustainable Development Goals) be achieved. Next, we highlight the contribution of railway transport to the main strategic pillars.

Pillar 1: Mobility for all

Railway is a mode of transport that stands out in the pillar of “mobility for all” because of its alignment with the three principles:

  • Civil right and social cohesion: because of its general nature of public transport, accessible to society as a whole and with a network deployed with social criteria and territorial cohesion. It is undoubtedly the backbone of mobility in metropolitan areas and between regions.
  • Sustainable, safe, and reasonable solutions on cost: “sustainable” for its unmatched energy efficiency thanks to its ability and low resistance to advancement, as well as for its ability for carbon neutrality thanks to the ease of electrification of guided transport. “Safe” as the figures show, it is the transport with the lowest accident rate per passenger and per kilometre.

And “reasonable in cost” thanks to that efficiency, but also to its great ability for collective transport.

  • Universal accessibility: this is a prominent principle on the railway in all its forms, trams, metros, commuter trains, medium-distance or high-speed. On the one hand, for all people with some kind of reduced mobility, from wheelchair users to senior citizens or passengers loaded with luggage or with pushchairs: street access of tramway networks, or level access at metro stations, or accessible vehicles on new commuter trains with level access, or reserved areas on medium-distance and high-speed trains. On the other hand, by adapting itself to the full spectrum of disabilities, both sensory and cognitive, applying the principles of universal design and digitization in a way that given its characteristics (including space on board and guided character) it allows solutions that no other mode is able to offer.

In addition, railway systems are prepared for an ever-changing future, where today’s needs of “mobility for all” will not be the same as those of tomorrow.

For decades it has been shown how infrastructures have adapted to changes, and that flexibility is being accentuated in the modern mobile material, which is easily configurable and flexible to adapt itself to the needs and changes in the demand expected in each case.

Pillar 2: New Investment Policies

In order to contribute to the global objectives in the fight against climate change assumed by Spain in its Mobility Strategy, it is necessary to place railway transport, both of people and goods, as the backbone of national urban and intercity transport policies, as well as to promote its greater implementation and development.

Public resources annually allocated to infrastructure conservation are lower than those required to compensate for the effective deterioration of such infrastructure, raising the risks associated with the generation of externalities, such as an increased accidentality, among others. In addition, an intelligent investment in modernization of maintenance systems can result in a lower total cost of the operation as well as an increased system productivity.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set up by the United Nations would require significant investment in areas of mobility improvement and, in many cases, railway investment is much more effective in terms of SDGs, because of its carbon neutrality, efficiency, accessibility and strong social cohesion component.

While we recognize the importance of the paradigm shift toward “mobility investment,” or the efficiency of limited resources and financial balance, it is important to execute that change intelligently and appropriately. Partially deployed infrastructures should be carefully analysed, and investment maintained to complete those that can result in both improving the financial balance as well as increasing the efficiency of already invested resources, as well as other objectives, such as social cohesion. Some examples:

  • Completing a tramway infrastructure (to connect it to the nearby commuter network, to join two networks of the same city, to reach the urban centre, to connect to a university area, etc.), can result in a significant increase in demand and a modal transfer from the private vehicle.
  • Completing a high-speed corridor already initiated can significantly increase traffic in the existing leg, both due to the modal transfer and the induced demand. This strengthens the role of railway as a backbone and as complementary to other modes of mobility, with several positive effects: it improves the financial balance of railway infrastructure managers; transferred mobility reduces emissions, improves safety, and decongests infrastructures; it contributes to economic activity both within the industrial and the tourism sectors; it generates demand for complementary mobility modes at both ends; and it reinforces territorial and social cohesion.
  • Renovating the commuter and medium-distance train fleet enables a significant increase in the transport capacity of the city and of the regional network, while at the same time improving accessibility and onboard experience, including the recovery of confidence in collective transport. In this way a significant modal transfer can be achieved from other more polluting modes of transport that overload roads.

It is important to approach these aspects with perspective, taking into account the current situation, but considering the overall long-term situation. While there may be some discrepancies in terms of deadlines, all forecasts suggest that the mobility situation, severely affected by the health crisis, will recover in a few years. In this context, the need of investment to increase airport infrastructure can be avoided if its congestion can be prevented by reducing short-distance flights and, without a doubt, if the streets and avenues of many cities and metropolitan areas, as well as roads, highways and motorways, can be decongested. And above all, favouring a mode of transport that is key to the objectives of sustainable mobility, and which is the backbone and source of demand for so many other modes of transport through intermodal travel.

On the other hand, it is appropriate to establish clear and stable models of public-private collaboration (PPC), which in times of economic slowdown has been very efficient. The PPC is focused on economic efficiency from the point of view of value for money, taking into account the fact that such initiatives incorporate a greater knowledge and cost control, not only throughout the life of projects, but even earlier, from the dialogue that is established on a preliminary basis between the public and private sectors to weigh up the feasibility of their funding and implementation. By linking planning and funding, we make the case for rethinking the traditional public commitment in the area of transport.

It is also necessary to strengthen investment in R&D&I to deploy innovative solutions on a large scale. Thus we will be able to address digital transformation, the redefinition of transport security, the use of data, the management and control of railway traffic or the use of artificial intelligence in different aspects (ventilation of infrastructures, passenger flow management, protection of level crossings, detection of objects falling onto the tracks, etc.)

Pillar 3: Safe mobility

In terms of accidents and according to data from UIC (International Union of Railways), railway transport is also the safest mode of transport, hence, to invest in railway is to improve mobility safety. In this sense, it is necessary to pay special attention and strengthen investment in those technologies and systems that favour the safe and uninterrupted movement of passenger and goods trains, as well as the maintenance and improvement of infrastructures. Some of the main lines for developing this pillar would be:

  • Deploying the new continuous monitoring and communication technologies (ERTMS) already present in high-speed and part of the commuter network, in the rest of the railway network of general interest.
  • Introducing technologies to increase security against wrongdoing, including artificial intelligence in video surveillance, sensorizing infrastructure and vehicles, strengthening and providing new technologies to central checkpoints, reinforcing cybersecurity, including demand-based transportation planning technologies to avoid crowds, etc.
  • Promoting the use of new technologies in vehicle and infrastructure maintenance: introducing real-time asset monitoring, condition-based maintenance, and even prediction for anticipation of corrective measures and maintenance optimization.

Pillar 4: Low Emission Mobility

We understand that low-emission mobility solutions must be given the highest priority, and in that respect railway transport will be reinforced by the principle of internalization of negative externalities.

Railway transport is inherently sustainable (based on objective and measurable criteria) because of its high energy efficiency coming from the low resistance to advancement (guided transport, wheel/rail contact…) and its high transport capacity, and also for the ease of electrification.

However, there is still room for improvement in the optimization of railway systems. In line with the European guidelines on Low Emission Mobility, in order to optimise transport and improve its efficiency, the creation of intelligent transport infrastructures, of systems that further improve the efficiency of the railway itself and its intermodality with other modes should be promoted. This should increase the overall efficiency of the transport system, promoting coordination and management of the flow of people from an integrated point of view that contemplates door-to-door mobility and including all available modes.

In addition, the railway can still improve its emissions on unelectrified tracks. On the one hand, it is true that diesel trains and locomotives are efficient because of the characteristics of the railway (wheel/rail, guided system, high capacity…). But on the other hand, it is necessary to take into account that railway rolling stock has life cycles of 30 and 40 years or even longer, so trains that are now manufactured will be in commercial service beyond 2050 and therefore must meet the European carbon neutrality target. It is therefore necessary to already address the strategy of migration to carbon-free technologies, both in the newly built material and the adaptation of the existing one.

In addition, it is important to note that railway projects have the potential to be wide-reaching projects for other industries, and they can also be deployed quickly thanks to the leadership and investment capacity of public administrations, so emission-free railway initiatives such as hydrogen or battery trains can be a major catalyst for the development of the associated industry in other sectors.

Pillar 5: Smart Mobilit

An integrated public transport network should be considered as a priority, with a comfortable, fast, safe, and reliable urban and intercity railway as a smart and sustainable mobility solution for Smart Cities.

It will also be necessary to integrate into this ecosystem of the smart mobility the new agents that are emerging and that also have an impact on mobility (carsharing, park and ride, etc.)
The new digital technologies are going to transform the way we think about mobility. This should be done under a perspective that puts users at the centre of the processes offering the best mobility experiences. Providing the most efficient solution at all times by integrating data from various infrastructure sources and the city for an easy and simple intermodality, that allows moving towards new mobility paradigms until reaching the Mobility as a Service.

We recommend committing to integrated mobility platforms, which offer multimodal solutions to the traveller according to their own needs and convenience, and where collective transport can be combined with shared bikes, walking routes, car-sharing, etc. always offering an integrated transport from the first to the last mile, with public transport options accessible throughout the passenger journey.

Likewise, in addition to platforms for travellers, we recommend supporting coordination and synchronization initiatives of the different transport systems. Measures such as the strengthening of transport consortia, integration into them of railway transport and micro-mobility operators, regulation of the exchange of data by operators, provision of control and supervision tools, transfer of competences as provided for by the public transport funding law, etc. in short, tools that allow to really coordinate the multimodal mobility of cities, metropolitan areas and regions, not only from the point of view of planning but also of the real-time management of incidents, controlling security and with the centralized ability to communicate with the traveller.

Pillar 6: Intelligent Intermodal Logistics Chains

IIn Europe, freight transport is expected to increase by 30% by 2030, while the European Commission has set a target for that same year of reducing at least 40% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990.

Freight transport by train should be promoted because of its efficiency, high performance, and for being sustainable and efficient for a European multimodal logistics solution.

Freight transport is a sector of utmost importance and impact on society and the environment. According to the European coalition Rail Freight Forward, 4.2 billion lorries travelled the roads in 2015. In the same year, only 18% of the goods transported were moved by railway.
The environmental impact is huge, with the estimation that freight transport emits 30% of the total CO2 generated by the transport sector.

Pillar 7: Connecting Europe and the World

The railway unites territories, either within the European Union or its own Member States and it contributes to mobilizing goods and passengers. To this end, it is key to equip itself with the necessary infrastructures strengthening the investment in them and taking advantage of instruments such as the CEF (Connecting Europe Facility), whose calls for bids attract projects that allow to join ports, logistics terminals and Spanish industrial areas through railway connections that facilitate such mobility of people and goods at European and global level.

Completing the railway corridors of the TEN-T network is essential given the technological breakdowns intrinsic to the Spanish and Portuguese railways, imposed mainly by the track gauge and catenary voltage. Unlike other European borders, there are still physical barriers between the Spanish railway and that of its neighbouring countries. The start of the high-speed interoperability on the Barcelona-French Border line (still pending 150 km of high-speed between Perpignan and Montpellier), is yet to arrive on the border of the Basque Country and in the corridors towards Portugal. The same way as it happens with goods, especially between France and Spain. In addition, this high-speed interoperability with European networks creates internal barriers within the Spanish territory, so it is urgent to complete the pending sections of the high-speed transport system (such as the Mediterranean Corridor or the connections to the Basque and Galician networks), not only because of territorial cohesion but also because of the connection of all regions with the rest of Europe.

Intermodal connection is also important. The connection between airports and a high-speed networks particularly important for the movement of people, and the improvement of railway connections at major ports is equally important for the movement of goods.

Pillar 8: Social and Employment Related Aspects

Efficient and quality public transport removes social barriers facilitating cohesion, as we are all potential users for work purposes, leisure, etc.
The railway is also a productive sector in itself, with an important industrial and technological component, and a significant and permanent export activity. Its structure around wide-reaching companies generates employment in an extensive auxiliary industry, and it is an export booster especially for small and medium-sized enterprises.

In addition, intermodality and shared mobility are often poles of attraction for start-ups and medium size companies.

In short, providing support to railway mobility projects is to invest in quality employment and high added value.