When I launched Trains for Europe close to a year ago, my key demand was that the European Union organises the procurement of a fleet of new night trains. To me that this is the key to improving the provision of night trains is obvious. But, as the year has progressed, while no one has been able to make the case that the key demand – that new night trains are needed – is wrong (some people quibble about the extent to which procurement could be standardised, or how much the EU could act here), I nevertheless feel like I am shouting into the ether. There is no proper debate in the EU about what European countries should want or need from their railways, especially cross border.
That leads me to the conclusion there are two more major hurdles I need to overcome, and that needs a step-change in how I do railway activism.
The first is a lack of genuine public debate about cross border rail in Europe – above and beyond night trains. But how can I manage to push for the EU to solve a problem like the absence of European night trains – the aim of my Trains for Europe campaign – if there is little discussion that the EU could even step in to solve a problem like that? Why was it that cross border trains were the ones that suffered most when services were restricted due to COVID? Why are there countries in the EU that have cross border railways but not a single train runs on those lines? You can only solve political problems if a wide enough group knows the problems even exist, and when it comes to cross border rail in Europe, too few people are aware of the predicament. This is not just about night trains, but cross border rail in the EU in general. And the railway industry itself is not solving these problems – it is running expensive publicity trains instead.
The second issue is my lack of financial resources. I have not earned a cent for any of my rail activism to date. Everything – the events, the blog posts, the tweets, the campaign sites – has been done in my free time, and my other work as a freelance communications trainer has kept me going. But if I am to step up my activism, I need to also accordingly step up my fundraising.
So today I am launching a new project – #CrossBorderRail – and will crowd fund it. In a 40 day trip I will cross each and every border in the EU you can cross by train, crossing at least one border a day on pretty much all the days of the trip (and some days up to 7!). The trip will comprise more than 140 trains and more than 26000 route kilometres. And where there are no trains any more I will use a bicycle. But I am going to need just over €4000 to make the trip a reality (and up to €7000 to do it really well), and all of the details about why I am crowdfunding the trip can be found here. There are also non-financial ways to help out.
At one level trying to rely on my network to fund something like this scares me. I can’t escape the question “why would anyone fund me for something like this?” But the opposite is also true – these issues matter, the politics of this matters, the stories from the ground matter – and who is better placed to tell this story than I am? And if just 10% of my Twitter followers contributed just €1 each then I have my funding together. And as Europe is faced with the twin challenge of decarbonisation due to climate change, and reducing dependency on oil from Russia, these issues have never been more urgent.
In a small way my previous Berlin-Beograd trip showed me how to communicate something like this, and I have been further inspired by Wiebe Wakker’s Train to Dubai stories, and Political Animal’s brilliant #train24. I want to tell those stories of places where trains used to cross the border but now the lines lie derelict. The places where the lines exist but the trains don’t. The places where the trains exist, but they are so few and far between so as to be rather useless. The places where timetable and ticketing problems mean railways do not have the modal share they should.
I want to meet the people on the ground and tell their stories. I want to understand the history and the culture and the society of these border places. I want to work out what the European Union could do to solve these issues. And above all want to bring along my followers on social media into this story, and – if I am really lucky – tell the stories in other media and publications as well.
So check out the #CrossBorderRail site, share it with your friends, and pitch in to help!