Airlines blast EU’s ‘blatant bias’ for railways

The European Union should reconsider its “blatant bias” for costly high-speed rail networks and instead boost competitiveness and duplicate successful plane-train links, an airline trade association said yesterday (17 November).

The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) made public a report challenging the cost benefits of high-speed rail and contending that rail is not as green-friendly as promoted by policymakers.

The group also said rail systems have an unfair advantage over airlines in that much of the infrastructure costs are publicly financed, although airlines also benefit from tax breaks and public backing of airports.

“There is a blatant bias toward rail,” Simon McNamara, deputy director general of ERA, said in a telephone news conference. “The scales are tipped in that mode’s favour and we think that needs to be corrected, and we hope this study will start that process.”

Parliament backs rail liberalisation

The report was made public a day after the European Parliament voted to liberalise freight and passenger rail networks, especially in cross-frontier routes, citing low market shares of about 7% for freight and 12% for passenger services.

However, the legislation fell short of European Commission proposals for a complete separation of transport and infrastructure operators that advocates said would drive cross-border competition and service.

“While trucks and planes cross borders without any difficulty, cross-border rail services face many technical, legal and political obstacles,” Italian MEP Debora Serracchiani (Socialists & Democrats) said in a statement. “With the realisation of a single market, citizens will be able to benefit from trains that go across Europe, at better prices and with service comparable to planes and coaches.”

The measure was approved by a vote of 526 to 80, with 36 abstentions. Though praised by several organisations as a step to improving trans-European rail service, some political groups in Parliament said it was a sell-out that would lead to privatisation and profiteering.

A decade after the EU’s first railway package aimed at boosting integration of routes and competition, the European Commission has called for additional measures to encourage competition and private investment in a sector still heavily under state influence.

The Commission is also looking in the coming months for reform the tendering process for rail project to guarantee competitive bidding across the EU and to strengthen the European Railway Agency’s safety oversight.

The airline group's McNamara called the Parliament vote a “step in the right direction,” but said it fell short of addressing public subsidies that were unfair to other transport modes. The trade group’s report says that under the EU’s decade-old Trans-European Transport Network, or TEN-T, more than €318.7 billion was spent on rail and high-speed projects compared to €1.34 billion in air infrastructure, out of some €400 billion in trans-European transport spending.

“What we’re looking for out of this is a change of attitude by policymakers and politicians towards the two modes. We’re looking for a level playing field based on fair competition and equal treatment.”

Cooperation and competition

McNamara told EURACTIV that the report was presented to the European Commission but there has been no response from Siim Kallas, the transport commissioner.

Though acknowledging that the 65-member ERA has a vested interest in its report on air-rail competition, McNamara said the industry association’s study shows there are successful examples of cooperation between airlines and rail companies.

Alliances between carriers and passenger trains in both German and France have been highly successful in improving short-haul service and seamless air-to-rail transfers. McNamara said airlines and railway companies – as well as the EU – should build on these successes.


German MEP Sabine Wils, from the leftist GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament, said Wednesday's vote on the establishment of a single European rail area "paves the way for private profiteering in Europe's railway sector".

"Although the practice in the UK already shows that this is the wrong policy, the further liberalisation of the railway sector and the further separation of rail and operating services to the detriment of employees, passengers and safety measures is now being implemented in Europe," said Wils.

??Johannes Ludewig, executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) said: "CER has always been supporting the full implementation of the first railway package as drafted at the time and regrets that this has not been the case in a number of EU member states. It is clear that a European railway area cannot be created where the existing legal framework is not respected and where the necessary financial architecture is not in place. This is why CER is satisfied to see that the members of the European Parliament have confirmed and reinforced the framework of the first railway package while at the same time acknowledging the importance of a healthy financial environment during today’s vote.”

MEP Gilles Pargeneau, a French Socialist on the European Parliament’s transport committee, said: “Thanks to our work in the transport committee, in partnership with the Italian Socialist rapporteurDebora Serracchiani, we cast aside the requirement of a total decoupling, against the right-wing deputes form the PPE group, in particular Dominique Riquet, Michel Dantin et Dominique Vlasto, who sought an ‘effective’ separation of infrastructure services and transport businesses.”



The transport sector is essential for Europe's prosperity and competitiveness, generating an annual turnover of around €363 billion (or 4.5% of EU GDP) and employing more than 8.2 million people. If one takes into account related services, including the manufacture of cars, planes, trains and ships, as well as infrastructure construction, trade and tourism, the jobs and wealth stemming from transport are even greater. 

An EU White Paper published in 2001 ("European transport policy for 2010: time to decide") called for transport growth rates to be "decoupled" from economic growth and for a "modal shift" from roads and air transport towards more sustainable travel modes, including shipping and rail. 

However, in a 2006 review of the policy, the Commission reneged on its commitment to control the spiralling growth in transport demand, pleading instead for measures aimed at tackling the negative effects of transport – notably through improved logistics and traffic management, and the promotion of cleaner, safer vehicles. 

The Commission seeks to liberalise the railway market to encourage private investment, greater efficiency and more seamless travel across the EU to boost rail passenger and cargo transit to ease air and road congestion as well as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


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