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Train spotting

  • Written by  Benjamin Hennig
  • Published in Mapping
Train spotting Benjamin Hennig
23 Apr
Benjamin Hennig maps Europe's public train networks

Passenger transport in Europe is largely dominated by cars. In the past decade, cars kept a consistent share of around 83 per cent of the modal split within the European Union, followed by buses and coaches (around nine per cent in most recent statistics) and trains (between seven and eight per cent). The modal split describes these modes of transport as ‘transport kilometres travelled by all inland passengers’. In the debate about sustainable development, this is an important measure to monitor the environmental and social impacts of the specific modes of transport.

Cars are generating the most emissions and pollution per passenger kilometre and also have significantly higher accident rates. Mass transit and public transport, including buses and coaches as well as trains, are therefore regarded as the more sustainable alternatives and have regained importance in urban and regional planning.

Buses rely on the same transport infrastructure as cars, while trains require railway tracks in order to maintain or improve the existing transport capabilities. Recent trends showing a slow but steady revival of passenger transport by train in Europe therefore have to be seen in the context of its existing transport infrastructure. New railway infrastructure is costly and requires time-consuming planning procedures.

A look at the railway infrastructure in Europe (beyond the EU) shows that across the continent there are approximately 250,000km of tracks, just slightly lower than the length of tracks in the USA, where train travel plays a subordinate role in passenger transport but serves mostly freight transport.

railway mapImage: Benjamin Hennig

This month’s cartogram shows the share of railway infrastructure in Europe in the form of a so-called ‘rectangular cartogram’. Early forms of this perhaps most classic form of cartogram can be found in the 19th century and have been regular features in school atlases for decades. Their construction is a lot less complex than other cartogram types, although complexities remain with the geographical arrangement of the rectangles, and how each entity is connected to the others. With only four sides, geographic accuracy is hard to preserve. In this map, each country is represented by a rectangle whose area represents the total amount of railway tracks it has. In addition, all countries that have more than 1,000km of track length are labelled, and the countries are shaded by the relative importance of railway travel in the passenger modal split of that country.

The cartogram shows the important role of train transport in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Here the network is considerably stronger than the motorway network, a legacy of a strong focus on non-individual means of transport until the 1990s, although they are partly in need of major re-investments. The smaller train networks in Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark stand out. The modal split of train travel in these (equally relatively small) countries is significantly above the European average. The relative importance of the train is much lower in the Baltic states as well as across the Balkan countries. Southern European countries also show a relatively poor network compared to their area.

The future of train transport in Europe remains challenging. While there is an overall revival of railway travel, the differences in the quality and structure of the networks vary. This matters even more in inter-continental travel routes between countries in pan-continental transport corridors. A fully functioning trans-European rail network will be key to a more sustainable transport system across the continent.

Benjamin Hennig (@geoviews) is Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Iceland and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is involved in the Worldmapper project and is author of viewsoftheworld.net

This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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