Members' Research Service By / November 6, 2020

2021: European Year of Rail

Every year since 1983, the EU has chosen a special annual theme to celebrate and to bring to public attention. The idea is to raise awareness on the issue, encourage public debate on it across the EU and underline its political importance.

© clin0000 / Adobe Stock

Written by Damiano Scordamaglia,

rainway at the coastline with wind turbine in Miaoli, Taiwan
© clin0000 / Adobe Stock

Every year since 1983, the EU has chosen a special annual theme to celebrate and to bring to public attention. The idea is to raise awareness on the issue, encourage public debate on it across the EU and underline its political importance. The process can lead to new EU initiatives or legislation. 2021 has been designated European Year of Rail, to stir debate on railways’ contribution to the European Green Deal and the environment. A wide range of events are planned, reaching out to the general public, to demonstrate the challenges and opportunities offered by rail, and promote it as a sustainable, innovative and safe mode of transport.


In December 2019, the European Commission adopted a new development strategy, the Green Deal, to address environmental challenges and climate change. To contribute to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, this new strategy centres on achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and a more resource-efficient economy. For this to happen, as transport accounts for a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions, a 90 % reduction in transport emissions is necessary by 2050 and an important share of the 75 % of inland freight currently carried by road will have to shift to rail or inland waterway transport. Rail’s green credentials speak for themselves: in 2016, rail represented 0.5 % of the CO2 emissions from all transport modes. Railways are also energy-efficient: while they account for roughly 2 % of energy consumption in EU transport, in 2018, they transported 12.6 % of freight and 6.9 % of passengers. Despite this, the share of freight transported by rail has been decreasing continuously since the mid-1990s and passenger traffic has stagnated. Rail has played an important role during the pandemic, ensuring the circulation of people and essential goods, and it will support the post Covid-19 economic recovery. If the EU wants railways to become more attractive to passengers and businesses and help to improve traffic congestion and air pollution, it needs to give this sector additional support.

European Commission proposal

On 4 March 2020, the European Commission adopted a proposal to designate 2021 European Year of Rail (EYR) and promote the use of rail for passengers, companies and public authorities. This specific year was chosen in part because it will coincide with the first full year of the implementation of the new rules on governance and domestic passenger market opening, agreed under the fourth railway package. In addition, the international arts festival Europalia will devote its 2021 edition to the influence of railways on arts and their contribution to social, economic and industrial change. The overarching aim of the EYR is to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities offered by rail, and support the efforts made by the EU, Member States, regional and local authorities to expand the market share of this transport mode.

EYR: organisation and objectives
With its initiatives, debates, dedicated events, exhibitions and promotional campaigns, the EYR will reach out to the wider public, in particular young people, to promote rail as a sustainable, innovative and safe mode of transport. The EYR is also designed to underline the cross-border dimension of rail and its contribution to relations with neighbouring countries and to EU cohesion, economy, industry and society at large. It will cover aspects relating to regional development, industrial competitiveness, sustainable tourism, employment, innovation, education, youth and culture, while focusing on improving accessibility for disabled people and people with reduced mobility (DPRMs).
In order to tailor the EYR to the needs of EU countries, each Member State will appoint a national coordinator and the EU will set up a steering group. The financial allocation for the EYR is estimated at €8 million; the final envelope will be decided in accordance with the multiannual financial framework 2021-2027.

European Parliament position

In a resolution of 15 January 2020, the European Parliament welcomed the European Green Deal, underlining the need for all transport modes to contribute to the decarbonisation of transport and calling for enhanced investment in EU rail connectivity. Parliament expressed its first opinion on the EYR proposal in June 2020, when the rapporteur (Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg (Greens/EFA, DE)) presented her draft report to the Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN), responsible for this file. The rapporteur noted that the EYR would give visibility to rail as an attractive transport mode and highlighted the importance of digitalisation and, more specifically, further development of the European rail traffic management system (ERTMS). Shadow rapporteurs insisted on the need to focus on enhancing train accessibility for DPRMs and supporting rail in the urban context. On 12 October 2020, with very broad support (45 votes in favour, none against and two abstentions), the TRAN committee adopted its report along with 15 compromise amendments and the decision to start interinstitutional negotiations. In order to create a truly European rail network, the TRAN committee called for support for regional cross-border rail connections and action to promote completion of the trans-European transport network (TEN-T). The report invited the Commission to study setting up a rail connectivity index to identify areas where investment is especially necessary. It also advocated for EYR activities to inform citizens better of their rights as rail passengers. The Committee report also endorsed some recommendations from two other parliamentary committees. In particular, TRAN supported the call to improve train accessibility for the elderly, disabled and persons of reduced mobility, and other measures put forward by the Committee on Regional Development, such as efforts to promote the EU’s night train networks and develop rail networks and infrastructure in regional and border areas. Finally, the TRAN Committee supported the idea of the Committee on Culture and Education to promote better geographical coverage of rail services, considering their impact on the uptake of certain EU programmes, such as Erasmus + and DiscoverEU. On 24 June 2020, Council agreed a common position for a negotiating mandate on the proposal. It added some themes such as rail for end-to-end mobility and better distribution of information on passengers’ rights. It also proposed that the Commission launch a feasibility study during the EYR on the creation of an EU label to promote goods transported by rail. Interinstitutional negotiations began on 27 October 2020.

Advisory committee and stakeholder views

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted its opinion on the legislative proposal on 15 July 2020. Supporting the EYR, the EESC considered that this initiative should be an opportunity to communicate on rail’s safety record, sustainability and on EU rail investment policies. It also underlined that the EYR should be promoted to regain consumers’ trust in rail, contribute to sustainable tourism and give new momentum to DiscoverEU. The European Committee of the Regions (CoR) adopted its opinion on the EYR on 14 October 2020. It called for the EYR to be used to highlight rail’s contribution to the EU economy and completion of the single market, and to offer solutions to urbanisation issues. The CoR was of the view that the EYR should also underline the attractiveness of employment in the rail sector and recommended increasing the EYR budget to €12 million. In March 2020, the Shift2Rail joint undertaking welcomed the EYR and declared that it was a very timely opportunity to raise awareness of rail’s potential to become the backbone of a future sustainable, climate-neutral transport system. In April 2020, the European associations representing infrastructure managers, railway operators, intermodal companies, wagon keepers and the rail supply industry welcomed the European Parliament resolution on Covid-19 and the recovery and reconstruction plan. In their statement they called for support for rail beyond the pandemic, to enable this sector to make a substantial contribution to cleaner mobility and the development of multimodality. UIC, the worldwide railway organisation, also welcomed the initiative and underlined the role rail has to play in decarbonising transport, due to its energy efficiency, long life cycles and frugality in public space occupation. In a letter sent to EU Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean, and signed jointly by the European Passengers’ Federation (EPF), the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and the network of non-profit organisation AGE Platform Europe, the European Disability Forum (EDF) insisted on the necessity for the EYR to focus on rail passengers’ rights and how to promote them to make rail a truly convenient choice for all citizens, including disabled people and people with reduced mobility. BEUC, meanwhile, published its proposal for the EYR in May 2020, observing that the ongoing reform of rail passengers’ rights should send a strong political signal to EU passengers and that the EYR should focus on making rail travel more convenient and affordable and on increasing the quality of services.

Read this ‘at a glance’ on ‘2021: European Year of Rail‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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