COVID-19:
The impact on Rail R&I

Carlo Borghini, Executive Director
Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking

The past months saw the global economy moving in just a few days to smart working arrangements as a result of the pandemic. Everything happened so fast that almost nobody had the time to prepare, but simply to react with the available instruments while mitigating the business and societal risks associated to such a sudden change.

Although it is not yet sure how the pandemic situation will evolve, it is clear that it has had an unprecedented negative impact on the overall global economy, and its consequences will be present for years. Throughout this difficult period, rail has demonstrated a unique resilience to ensure the connectivity of people – health workers in primis – at different levels; in terms of rail freight the opportunity to maintain the supply chain has been matched with a fast response and adaptation.

The global response has differed, and also in the European Union, notwithstanding the efforts put in place by the Commission, different national, regional, and local answers have impacted and still impact rail mobility and transport. During the crisis, the need for an integrated approach has become more evident day by day.

During the past months, the European Commission proposed and adopted different measures impacting transport and mobility, since the Communication of 16 March on the restrictions of non-essential travel, the Guidelines of 23 March on “Green Lanes” (reduced timeframe for freight checks at the internal borders to max. 15 minutes, transport workers’ permission to cross borders) and the Guidelines of 30 March on the free movement of workers during the pandemic

The indicated measures, with the joint European Roadmap of 15 April, paved the way to cross-border coordination, gradual lifting of internal border controls subject to the epidemiological situation in the different regions, etc. The most recent guidelines on restoration of transport services has allowed easing of travel restrictions by the Member States in consultation with the ECDC (European Centre for Disease Control).

All these measures have ensured mobility and transport through the most acute phases of the pandemic till now, providing mobility options for passengers towards safe collective transport, coordination and clear rules on the protection of drivers and passengers.

At the same time, it should be noted that during the whole period, rail freight never stopped, and has demonstrated its resilience while benefitting from the lower absorption of capacity by passenger trains. Nevertheless, also freight has suffered from a decrease in demand in some areas due to the contingent situation and the stop of industrial activities in major European regions and globally.

At the same time, it should be noted that during the whole period, rail freight never stopped, and has demonstrated its resilience while benefitting from the lower absorption of capacity by passenger trains. Nevertheless, also freight has suffered from a decrease in demand in some areas due to the contingent situation and the stop of industrial activities in major European regions and globally.

What the current situation has shown us, once again, is the critical, strategic and innovative capacity of the rail sector, as demonstrated during and after the crisis. As part of the overall Multi-Annual Financial Framework 2021-2027, including the Next Generation Europe plan, the European Commission’s proposed recovery and reconstruction package for investment will be a unique opportunity also for rail to accelerate the “digital” transformation and sustainable transition undertaken in the last years, building upon the R&I work performed by Shift2Rail.

We are supporting the sector to prepare for the successor of the Shift2Rail programme, expected to start in 2021, once agreed by the Member States and the European Parliament, following a proposal from the European Commission. It will be an opportunity for the current Founding Members to re-engage in an ambitious R&I Programme, bringing on board key players for a core membership to deliver a shared strategic research and innovation agenda, driven by a renewed Master Plan.

Moreover, it will especially be an opportunity for a more balanced participation from operators, infrastructure managers, suppliers, the scientific and research community, etc., and inclusiveness around clear targets. The Shift2Rail successor creates the opportunity to accelerate research and innovation investments with a delivery oriented view, especially needed in the current pandemic situation.

And what about ongoing rail research and innovation? Undoubtedly the activities have suffered from the lockdown, especially when associated to on-the-spot demonstrations involving partners coming from different parts of Europe – the real nature of the Shift2Rail Programme – resulting in a combination of cancellations and postponements. At the same time, some activities, where digital collaboration was possible and companies were not under specific regimes, benefited from the situation and progressed in line or beyond the expectations. The situation is still quite fluid as not all European regions are in the same situation. We are monitoring the Programme evolution with the Shift2Rail Members and the beneficiaries of the Open Calls to put in place the necessary mitigating measures. It is clear: resources are scarce and we need to deal with it.

In line with the Horizon 2020 indications, Shift2Rail has set up specific fast-track procedures to deal with possible requests for amendments related to the COVID-19 situation, for example, to extend projects that under-performed or suffered from the lack of availability of partners or need to reassess their time-schedule in view of the return to a new normality.

Also, during the most critical period, Shift2Rail’s 2020 Call was running, so we extended the deadline in order to consider the delay in preparing consortia and formalising the documentation. Overall, we are quite satisfied with the answer rate as it is only slightly below last year in terms of number of proposals received; we have great expectations in terms of quality. The evaluation process is currently ongoing and awarded activities are expected to start during the last quarter 2020: no postponement, but rather acceleration to be combined with the necessary pre-financing levels.


As indicated in the Commission Communication on the restoration of transport services of 13 May, Shift2Rail is also exploring how to support the return to a safe public transport making use of the work performed in Innovation Programme 4 – IT Solutions for Attractive Rail Services. Complexities and obstacles need to be addressed in order to move from specific demonstration activities to large scale deployment, but the analysis is ongoing and looks promising.

Nevertheless, one of the major risks in the short term is the unavoidable focus of many partners on production and development instead of maintaining research teams with a forward looking approach. It is extremely complex to find the correct balance at this stage, as accounts have been heavily touched by the situation. This is why the measures presented by the European Commission are so important, as they would allow the acceleration of research and innovation, to create new market opportunities, while taking stock of the situation to look at new business model opportunities.

Ultimately, the rail sector’s contribution is essential for mobility and transport to achieve the European Green Deal targets, contribute to the advancement of the Internal Market and ensure a resilient and sustainable logistic value chain.