The European Parliament adopted yesterday (26 February) in a first reading amended rules for European railways, much to the Commission’s disappointment.
MEPs amended the EU Commission’s legislative proposals known as the “Fourth Railway Package” aimed at boosting competitiveness in the European rail sector and offering better services to the passengers.
This latest railway proposal came 12 years after the first package of legislation, which was aimed at injecting competition into Europe’s market and creating seamless travel and cargo links across the then 25 EU countries with railways (Malta and Cyprus do not).
While the amendments approved by the Parliament in plenary session pertaining to the technical aspects of the proposal are in line with what the EU executive had proposed, changes to the “market pillar” proposal were criticised as “unambitious” by the commissioner in charge of transport, Siim Kallas. The commissioner regretted that the vote was “yet another demonstration of the tenacity of the vested national interests that proved more appealing to MEPs than the balanced and well-reasoned compromises”.
Like similar setbacks in air and road transport, many countries have continued to protect traditional railway companies from competition and technical problems – such as a jigsaw of signalling systems.
Kallas deplored that the Parliament had postponed the competitive tendering procedures for public service contracts to 2023 and made them subject to exceptions.
MEPs have set a certain number of limits such as a maximum duration on the tendering of public service contracts to new operators. They also require that national authorities “justify awarding them directly on efficiency criteria such as punctuality of services, cost-efficiency, frequency of train operations, and customer satisfaction”.
The Parliament has also set out rules to protect workers, so that operators will have to comply with the local social standards in place.
“They would also have to comply with the relevant collective agreements and ensure decent employment and working conditions,” the Parliament's press release went on to say.
For MEPs the vote safeguards the important role of public service contracts and helps new and/or small operators to compete for public contracts.
The Parliament also approved the technical simplification of the European rail, since there are currently over 11,000 different national technical and safety rules in each of the 28 member states, “hampering” competition and “leading to excessive administrative costs,” the European People’s Party said in a statement.
The European lawmakers also gave greater power to the European Railway Agency (ERA) on issues such as the issuing of safety certificates and vehicle authorisations in the EU, which should help bring down administrative costs and make the rail even more environmentally-friendly.
After this vote, the legislative proposal will be submitted to the Council for a position, after which the two sides may negotiate.
EU Commission Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, regretted that: “This is not the strong signal that European rail needs and expects to increase its attractiveness. While the EP opens the way for reducing technical obstacles, today's plenary vote is yet another demonstration of the tenacity of the vested national interests that proved more appealing to MEPs than the balanced and well-reasoned compromises reached in December by the Transport and Tourism Committee.”
Mathieu Grosch MEP, the European People’s Party (EPP) Coordinator in the European Parliament's Transport Committee said: “Only 6% of passengers opt for travelling by rail, while this is one of the least polluting modes of transport. To make rail travel more reliable and attractive, passenger service needs to be improved with more efficient connections and more choice. The key to achieving this is to ensure better cross-border transport by eliminating a great part of the national rules that make rail transport unnecessarily expensive and cumbersome.”
Socialist and Democrat spokesperson Saïd El Khadraoui said: “"Inter-operability will create a truly European railway network. Inter-operable ticketing and information systems will have to be set up by December 2019, giving passengers access to all the data needed to plan a journey, reserve and buy their tickets – regardless of the operator or combination of operators they use. We have achieved our main priorities. The Socialists and Democrats wanted to make sure that opening the market will not undermine the protection of public service obligations (PSO).
Another important goal we achieved is protecting workers' rights. The clause on minimum services in case of strikes has been voted out and we protected the right to strike in Europe. Railway companies will have to respect collective agreements in force in the member states they wish to operate in as a condition of obtaining and keeping their operating licences.”
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)’s members were disappointed: “We need to end the inefficient national state monopolies. Evidence shows that an actual open railway market brings a better and more efficient service to our passengers, in terms of reliability and punctuality of trains, but it also boosts growth of the sector itself. Since the 90's, for instance, the UK railway market grew by 70% and the Swedish one by 40%. Unfortunately the majority of the Parliament gave in today to the lobby that wants to hold things back. It really feels that we take one step forward and two steps back,”ALDE’s spokesperson, Philippe De Backer said.
Michael Cramer MEP from the Greens Group said: "The legislation voted today would bring an end to the myriad of national schemes, introducing a common approach to rail safety and strengthening the safety of our railways.
MEPs supported proposals to make the European Railway Agency (ERA) a one-stop shop for certifying the safety of railway operators. It will coordinate the work of the national safety authorities and ensure swift and uniform procedures. This will end the current situation, with more than 11,000 national rules, which adds costs and administrative burdens and undermines moves towards more environmentally-friendly rail transport.
With trains travelling across Europe, railway safety clearly transcends borders. MEPs have today voted to recognise this in giving broad support for a European safety certificate. EU governments have shied away from negotiations with Parliament to finalise the rules but we hope they will move swiftly to this common sense approach to the files on railway safety."
The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) said in a press release: “I am very happy to see that the intense dialogue between the Members of the European Parliament and CER has resulted in reasonable legislative solutions. I want to thank all MEPs who dedicated their attention to these dossiers. It is beyond all question that we have to ensure non-discriminatory access to the network and we have to strengthen regulatory rights. Based on that general understanding we can achieve railway reforms in favour of our customers and the European tax payers. With good will from each side it should be possible to reach consent easily.”
Attempts to create an interoperable European system date to the Treaty of Rome, when a European transport policy was considered, and an earlier European Conference of Transport Ministers called for better continental interoperability.
The European Commission’s recast of the first railway package in 2001 was adopted in 2012. It was designed to address the historic challenges to creating a consolidated railway market, which in the
eyes of the EU executive include too little competition, poor regulatory oversight and inadequate public and private investment.
The 2012 recast consolidates the 2001, 2004 and 2007 legislation and provides for strengthening regulatory oversight and performance of infrastructure operators. It also seeks to improve transparency in rail contracts and operations.
The EU has also proposed price incentives to modernise services, expand the network and encourage the development of quieter and safer trains.
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