Austria to spend billions on making rail network greener

Austria will devote 17 billion euros ($20bn) to greening its rail network despite a historic budget deficit caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the government announced Wednesday in its 2021 budget.

Austria to spend billions on making rail network greener
An international train linking Bolzano and Innsbruck passes on a bridge over a highway near the border between Austria and Italy after it reopened on June 16, 2020 in Brenner, Austria. AFP

Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler, from the Green party, hailed the money as the “biggest rail package Austria has ever seen”.

The Greens have been in a coalition with the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) since the beginning of the year.

Part of the new plan for the railways is a target to make the network carbon neutral by 2035 through electrification.

Even though Austrian governments — and the OeVP in particular — are normally advocates of balanced budgets, the package presented to parliament on Wednesday by OeVP Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel foresees a budget deficit of 6.3 percent of GDP due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite this, spending on climate and environment-related projects is projected to grow by around a billion euros over three years.

A further 95 million euros will also be dedicated to a flagship project of the Green party, the so-called “1-2-3” transport ticket.

This would enable users to buy an annual ticket valid for travel on all public transport in their region for one euro per day, in two regions for two euros per day and throughout Austria for three euros a day.

Adam Pawloff of Greenpeace Austria welcomed the extra investment in climate goals as “a step in the right direction, even though more resources would be needed to meet the Paris climate targets”.

But the budget contained no steps towards a promised reform of the tax system to encourage more environmentally sustainable behaviour, he pointed out.

The WWF agreed that the lack of such reform was the “blind spot in this budget”. The current measures would not be enough for the government to reach its declared aim of making Austria carbon neutral by 2040, it added.

At present 67 percent of Austria's energy is supplied through fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

The Greens and environmental NGOs have been pushing for a tax on carbon emissions, but the OeVP have proved resistant to the idea.

In June the government had said it wanted to introduce a minimum price of 40 euros for flight tickets as well as a tax on flights under 350 kilometres (217 miles) but no further details on this have been announced.

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Stockholm to Oslo train links ‘would save half a million plane journeys’

A faster train service between Stockholm and Oslo could save half a million journeys by plane, a joint study carried out by the Swedish Transport Agency and Norwegian Railway Directorate has found. 

Stockholm to Oslo train links 'would save half a million plane journeys'

A joint study between the Transport Agency and Norwegian Railway Directorate found that building the so called “Gränsbanen” or border railway, with new tracks linking either Lillestrøm or Ski in Norway with the Swedish town of Arvika, would cut more than an hour off the current 5 hour 13 minute journey between Stockholm and Oslo. 

As a result, the two agencies predict that more than half a million of those who fly between the two capitals every year would instead take the train, dramatically reducing carbon emissions. 

Despite this, the joint study found building the Gränsbanen alone would not provide sufficient benefits to balance out the cost — of between 20 and 45 billion Norwegian kroner (21-48bn Swedish kronor) for Lillestrøm-Arvika and 25 to 60 billion kroner (27-64bn SEK) for Ski-Arvika. 

“The cost-benefit ratio comes to -9.5bn Norwegian kroner,” Bente Bukholm, project leader for the study at the Norwegian Railway Directorate, told Sweden’s TT newswire. “But it’s pretty common that you end up with a negative cost-benefit ratio for society with big railway projects, because they are so expensive to build.

Jonas Karlsson, the chief executive of the local government-owned lobbying company Oslo-Stockholm 2.55, told The Local that the agencies themselves in their report pointed out that the elements that went into the cost-benefit ratio were far from representative, with only the Gränsbanen taken into account. 

Oslo-Stockholm 2.55 is joint-owned by three Swedish regions — Värmland, Västmanland and Örebro — and three city governments Karlstad, Västerås, and Örebro. It is pushing to bring the journey time to below three hours. 

“We have made a cost benefit analysis for the project which is positive,” Karlsson said. “The big difference is that we have looked into the benefits if you establish [a link] all the way between Stockholm and Oslo: if you make a double track on Värmlandsbanan and if you make Nobelbanan.” 

It would take building the Nobelbanan, a new track linking Örebro and Kristinehamn, to bring the journey down under three hours, something Karlsson reckons is reasonable, seeing as the two capitals are only just over 400km away from one another as the crow flies. 

They believe that such a link could replace a million air journeys a year, double as many as predicted in last week’s joint Swedish-Norwegian report. 

“The huge amount of travel that goes on between Stockholm and Oslo is mainly done by air,” he said. “Before Covid there were 22 flights a day in each direction. It was the 20th biggest air connection in the world if you look at the number of flights, and air connection had a market share of 88 percent.” 

He said that the distance was sufficiently short that there is no need for a high-speed rail link able to take trains at more than 250 km/h. Normal express trains would be able to do it in under three hours. 

He pointed that the total cost of about 65 billion kronor for all the new connections, while significant, was much less than the 325 billion kronor required for new high speed rail links proposed between Stockholm and Gothenburg and Malmö. 

Also, because it would use existing train lines, the Stockholm-Oslo link would also benefit the regions along the way and allow regional transport to be improved.

Despite the conclusion that the cost-benefit ratio was negative, Karlsson said that the joint report, as well as support from many prominent Moderate MPs, was “very positive”: 

“It said that they recommend that the governments in Sweden and Norway continue their investigation into this project, and get into traditional planning for for this, so I’m very happy for that,” he said. “I think there is a good opportunity right now.”