Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Icelandic eruption promts Europe to look anew at its railroad systems

There are a few silver linings hidden in the plumes of Iceland's Eyjafjallojokull volcano. Carbon emissions are down due to all the cancelled airflights, and now many European Union nations are taking a good hard look at the need to modernize their rail systems. (GW)

Ash cloud prompts Parliament calls for better EU railways

April 21, 2010

A volcanic ash cloud that has grounded flights across Europe has served to highlight the region's dependence on air travel and prompted calls for the European Union to develop a better and faster rail network.


As of 1 January 2010, rail operators are in theory allowed to open international passenger rail routes in all EU countries, challenging powerful state-run companies such as France's SNCF and Germany's Deutsche Bahn.

But few new service offers have been put on the table so far.

European rail freight has been open to competition since 1 January 2007, but the opening of the market has not led to serious increases in competition, nor a substantial shift of freight from road to rail (EurActiv 22/01/09).

In a sometimes heated debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday (20 April), parliamentarians said the 27-country bloc had reacted too slowly to a crisis that had shown an urgent need to bring other forms of transport up to date.

The ash cloud had caused travel chaos in Europe as travellers sought alternative ways to reach their destination.

"Member states should finally learn a lesson from what has happened," centre-right MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu, a member of the Parliament's transport committee, told the assembly in the French city of Strasbourg.

"The modernisation of our railway transportation is a priority. We talk a lot about it but don't do much. In Europe today you can't buy a train ticket to travel in a civilised way from the north of Europe to the south of Europe."

Rail travellers often complain they have to buy tickets for each stage of their journey if travelling between European countries, that it is hard to find clear information about international links and that the cost is often prohibitive.

Onboard conditions are sometimes deplorable. Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian Socialist MEP, said he had in the past few days used trains and roads to travel from Belgrade to Vienna and from Vienna to Strasbourg, and found the trains "pretty grim".

"The toilets on the train were completely blocked because so many people were on the train and using them. The corridors were full of people sitting in them because there weren't enough seats," he said. "It was a pretty big disaster, I can assure you."

Assembly chief promises action

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said in a written statement that action was needed to ensure the bloc representing more than 500 million people developed its rail network and was not caught unprepared again.

"This crisis reminds us how important it is to invest in all forms of transport on a long-term perspective," he said.

"We have experienced in recent days what it means to be stuck at an airport being forced to find alternative means of travelling. Other forms of transport are not always suitable for long journeys or emergencies."

The EU has been working on opening domestic rail markets to more competition since 2001 and introduced new legislation this year to help implement its plans, but it has faced problems because of foot-dragging in some member states.

The executive European Commission says some countries have not created a level playing field on issues including access to infrastructure and price setting.

It accused some member states last year of moving towards protectionism during the economic crisis by demanding derogations from existing laws as well as legislation that was still under discussion.

"The liberalisation of international services happened at the start of the year, and we should see the effects soon," said Libor Lochman, deputy executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies.

He said passengers had recently begun using high-speed trains between Brussels and Frankfurt and between Paris and Frankfurt, and the tunnel linking Britain and mainland Europe would eventually be opened up to competition.

"We'll see an expansion of high-speed lines in France, Italy, Spain and the UK over the next five to 10 years, and the international services will closely follow," he said.

"However, further increase of international high-speed services depends on the availability of high-speed lines. Construction of a new infrastructure is hugely dependent on financing and that's mostly a decision for member states."

(EurActiv with Reuters.)


EU official documents
European Commission: Agreement on the third railway package (22 June 2007)
European Commission: Rail: What do we want to achieve? [FR] [DE]
Business & Industry
Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER): Third Railway Package compromise: Significant progress in creating an integrated European railway area (21 June 2007)
European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM): Rail Reform makes progress (21 June 2007)


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