The social and economic crisis generated by Covid-19 is of an even greater proportion than the debt crisis of 2008-2009. Its effects on the transport sector are substantial, with a drop in the number of flights of more than 80% worldwide and the activity of airlines to be reduced by at least 50% in 2020. In Portugal, the movement in service stations public transport fell by almost 80% and the intercity services of CP, at the peak of the confinement, had a drop in demand of 90%. According to the IMF, the drop in GDP in advanced economies will be 6,1% and world trade may decline by 30%, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Given this context, the discussion on the future of the railway in Portugal should seek to answer the question of how can the railway contribute to overcome the crisis in which we find ourselves?
This reflection implies, first of all, looking at the state of the sector in the pre-Covid moment. 2019 was the year in which the most passengers were transported by train, in the entire 2007st century. From 2017 to 80, the railway's modal share in freight transport grew the most across the European Union (EU). From the XNUMXs to the present, the number of tons handled has tripled. Portugal is one of the Western European countries with the greatest weight of the train in the movement of goods and the few where the main operator in the sector is profitable.
In the meantime, the Ferrovia 2020 investment plan includes initiatives of strategic scope already concluded or under construction, such as the electrification of the Minho Line to the border with Spain, the reopening in better conditions of the connection between the Beira Baixa Line and the Linha Beira Alta (Covilhã-Guarda section), or the new 80-kilometer link between Évora and Elvas, the most extensive addition to the rail network in the last hundred years. Although the implementation of this plan was delayed, it was a step in the right direction, with investments in the railroad in recent years being above the amounts spent on new roads.
This inflection is fundamental to rebalance the transport system, especially after the huge disproportion of means in favor of the road sector that occurred in the 90s and the first decade of the XNUMXst century. Despite the multiple challenges it faces, it is essential to underline that this is a sector that already shows strong signs of vitality in the movement of goods and continues to have a structuring role in passenger transport. We are not facing an activity hopelessly sunk in crisis.
If, with the various existing problems, the railway in Portugal has managed in recent years to attract greater demand and reinforce its financial sustainability, imagine what it will not be possible to achieve with a set of balanced interventions that take into account the reality and possibilities country, but are able to improve the efficiency and service levels of operations.
The realization of the railroad's maximum potential will bring multiple benefits. Rail freight transport can cost much less than on the highway, with the strengthening of this sector having a multiplier effect on the rest of the economy. This cost reduction means not only an increase in competitiveness for currently existing activities, but the opening of new opportunities and markets. Access to an efficient rail network is a particularly relevant asset for ports, large industries and other logistics hubs.
The sector also plays a key role in combating climate change. For the same volume of activity, the railway consumes on average seven times less energy and emits nearly nine times less carbon dioxide than transport by road.
Rail transport can be done with zero emissions when using electricity from renewable sources, a consolidated technology with decades of use; in fact, a large part of the main national rail network is already electrified, while other modes of transport (road, truck, sea or aviation) are very far from being able to achieve this objective, and it is very difficult for them to ever reach it.
As Portugal does not have oil reserves in operation, with the import of fuels having an important impact on the trade balance, reducing dependence on fossil energies is an economic and not just an environmental objective.
The railway can be the structuring pillar in the movement of people in urban areas, especially if it is articulated with other forms of public transport, soft means and new mobility offers based on digital platforms. Reducing car dependency allows for less congestion (saving time and resources) and better land use. In Europe, it is estimated that the railway infrastructure needs 3,5 times less space than the highway to transport the same volume of passengers.
The railroad is still an engine of technological innovation and an important industry, being a pioneer in the field of autonomous vehicles. In fact, there are already several metro systems with lines where trains without a driver operate. The digital revolution has wide fields of application in the railway, whether in the monitoring and maintenance of equipment and infrastructure, in the planning of operations or in new ticketing systems and information in real time to the user.
Having a functional railway system, updated and adapted to the needs of the country is to be present in an important market that globally involves multiple services, equipment supply and management and construction of infrastructures.
Ports, productivity and Spain
The central elements for continuing the resumption of the freight railroad in Portugal can be summed up in three words: ports, productivity and Spain. Low cost and capacity are the major strengths of the railroad in cargo handling: the competitiveness of the sector and the benefits that result from it for the country's economic fabric include increased productivity that brings these advantages to fruition.
Although distant from the industrial center of Europe, Portugal and the Peninsula are a crossing point for maritime routes from the four quadrants, with a unique location in the European, if not worldwide, context. The key to revitalizing the sector on an Iberian scale is improving connections between the various ports and the interior and between the ports themselves. The development of an efficient rail network that connects the various Iberian ports is the most direct and safest way to increase transported volumes and to obtain a demand base that makes it possible to profit from the freight railroad in the Peninsula.
The recovery of activity in Portugal shows that this multimodal strategy oriented towards ports has obtained positive results: extended to the Iberian scale, its potential can be multiplied, adjusting much better to our reality and to the logistics chains that connect the Peninsula with the world, than a strategy that focuses primarily on direct rail links with the center of the European continent.
Beyond the Pyrenees, the area of influence of the Iberian ports and the potential of the freight railroad is limited, the gauge being only one among several other technical, regulatory, geographical, logistical and political barriers to rail circulation.
Atlantic façade, metropolitan areas and stations
The railroad is a privileged instrument to promote the interconnectivity of large metropolitan areas along the Atlantic façade of the Iberian Peninsula. The offer of frequent rail services, with competitive travel times and good quality of service along this axis, can provide the necessary support base for the passenger rail activity in Portugal.
The heart of this axis is the Porto-Lisbon connection, which crosses important centers like Coimbra and Aveiro, through the Northern Line. The Alfa Pendular services that currently make this connection are the most profitable of CP, with high levels of demand and growth potential. The question is not whether to invest in this connection, but what type of investment to make. The phased construction of variants that make it possible to connect Porto to Lisbon in less than two hours and increase the capacity of the Northern Line is the most appropriate option.
Also essential are urban and suburban services in large metropolitan areas, 90% of the total train passengers in Portugal travel in urban and suburban services in Lisbon and Porto. This includes the construction of new lines (namely in the metropolitan area of Porto), modernization of existing lines and the creation of an interoperable network with the same technical and operational characteristics.
The development of the railway must be associated with land planning and land use. The role of the stations is fundamental, including the development of commercial, real estate and / or industrial projects in their surroundings. These projects can be an important source of financing for the railway, guarantee demand in the future and make an effective contribution by the railway to the sustainable development of the territory.
Francisco Furtado signs this text as the author of the essay “The railroad in Portugal - Past, present and future” of the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.