Member states undermining EU rail policy reform

Under-resourcing of the European railway agency also hampers effectiveness, says Dominique Riquet.

By Dominique Riquet

06 Nov 2014

Will this fourth rail package actually be the last? The former contender for the position of transport commissioner Maroš Šefčovič expressed his wish in an interview statement for this fourth railpackage to be the last.

Since then he has been promoted to the position of vice-president, and his replacement Violeta Bulc will have to work hard to see this ambition realised as harmonising the European rail network would clearly appear to be more challenging than walking on hot coals.

The only possible way for this to happen is if the bill, approved by the European parliament at its first reading, is not too watered down after the trilogues. That is the only way the bill will have the power to make any significant advances in the rail sector.

These advances come in terms of the safety of users and the harmonisation of standards for manufacturers, with technical support comprising three major papers relating to safety, interoperability and the powers of the European railway agency (ERA) becoming a ‘one-stop shop’. There is also an improved rail network organisation with political support for administration, duties and obligations entailed by public service.

However, there is a very real danger of the final papers becoming watered down versions of the originals, of them not having enough real clout to deal with the current slowness and underperformance plaguing the rail network, and not allowing it to have a large enough modal share, despite strong political support in favour of an environmentally friendly mode of transport to solve the traffic congestion problem.

"Europe could see its position as the world leader in the railway sector significantly diminished if those in charge of it fail to agree on bold reform"

A watered-down version of the original paper voted on by the transport commission has already been read at the plenary session. The stumbling blocks in the trilogues are essentially focused on issues relating to political support, with certain member states wishing to delay the introduction of competition and favouring direct assignment over public procurement procedures.

Some are even considering maintaining holding company structures and bringing infrastructures and operations together, despite an unacceptable lack of transparency as regards internal cash flow in these holdings.

Technical support appears, at first, to be less controversial but there are certain issues, such as the division of powers between the national security agencies and ERA that are still a matter of debate. The stumbling block regarding finance also still needs to be overcome. In this period of budget scarcity, the ERA needs to be given the means to carry out all the new tasks it has been entrusted with, such as the issuing of safety certificates or marketing authorisations.

The ERA, like all other agencies, had to make cutbacks of five per cent in its last annual budget, which is total nonsense given its enhanced powers. On the contrary, the ERA needs to be given a large enough budget to implement these powers as soon as it becomes the ‘one-stop shop’. Despite the enthusiasm of the Italian presidency, there is nothing to indicate that there will be any consensus before the end of the year.

I nevertheless hope that each member state will take its responsibilities seriously, given that the rail network we have now is in its death throes. Rail users are switching to road and air travel while our industries are under threat, as those countries that have economies that are no longer emerging at the same rate are developing their own technologies. Europe could see its position as world leader in the railway sector significantly diminished if those in charge of it fail to agree on bold reform.


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