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.

>> Read: Europe's rails: A bumpy ride to a single market

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.