Commission outlines EU-wide rail freight corridor plan

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Railway stakeholders have welcomed European Commission plans to reduce rail freight transportation times, improve punctuality and help rail to compete with road transport. But they underlined that member states would need to show genuine political will for the proposals to be a success.

The Commission adopted a proposal for a regulation asking member states, infrastructure operators and all other relevant stakeholders to get their act together and coordinate investment to create a European network for competitive rail freight. 

The aim is to establish international rail corridors, providing operators with an efficient, high-quality freight transport infrastructure to make rail a more attractive option for long-distance freight transport, said Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani.

“Member states are, and will remain, free to suggest or sketch out these corridors themselves,” he added.

The proposal on European rail freight corridors relates to:

  • Their design and governance (proposed by a member state, part of TEN-T [Trans-European Networks for Transport], and justified on the basis of socio-economic analysis);
  • investment in infrastructure, terminals and equipment (a long-term investment plan referring to Community contributions via TEN-T); 
  • their operation (creating a transparent ‘one-stop shop’ for requests for international train routes, defining priority freight for the transportation of time-sensitive goods). 

The proposal complements a process already underway to deploy a European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which aims to replace various national train control and command systems and create common European signalling standards to allow trains to cross borders without stopping.

The Commission also notes that the current review of TEN-T policy provides an opportunity to coordinate investment. 

UNIFE, which represents the European rail industry, described the draft regulation as "a step in the right direction" and a possible means of boosting cooperation between infrastructure managers in developing competitive freight corridors across Europe. "The political will of the EU 27 will however be essential in achieving this objective," added UNIFE Director General Michael Clausecker. 

Meanwhile, making European rail freight successful will require liberalisation of railway markets and guaranteed investment in railway infrastructure and technologies to enable interoperability, he added.

UNIFE notes that with an estimated share of 17.7% in the EU 27 transport market, rail still lags behind road transport in terms of freight. Amid the double challenge of climate change and the economic crisis, the industry considers it "vital to step up the necessary investments and to develop a robust rail freight sector which can directly compete with roads". 

CER, the Community of European Railways also welcomed the proposal. "Looking at the capacity needed to absorb the forecasted growth in freight transport over the next decade, flexible corridors for long-distance rail transport have to be developed as the backbone of a European transport network," said Johannes Ludewig, CER Executive Director. 

However, CER has some doubts about using a European regulation as the means to make the corridors a reality, "as this reduces the flexibility of member states to implement corridors according to national needs". 

The European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM) association also welcomed the draft, which they believe will "help to improve the quality and reliability of rail freight". They particularly hailed a Commission proposal to select freight corridors according to market demand, as well as the fact that no prescriptions are made on how to manage individual corridors. However, they feel "the use of market principles could be taken further," because a competitive, market-driven approach leads to greater efficiency.  

EIM is concerned about the practical details of the draft proposal. It feels that the use of a regulation "might not be appropriate," as the rules will have to be applied uniformly to infrastructure managers across EU 27, despite variations in their roles and responsibilities. Its members "would have preferred to see a more flexible approach, which could be adapted to the needs of freight markets in each member state". 

Freight transport is expected to boom in the next decade. While a majority of goods are currently shipped by road, future increases present a major challenge for industry and the environment.

In October 2007, the European Commission presented an initiative aimed at making the transportation of goods by rail more attractive (EURACTIV 19/10/07). The Communication on a Freight-Oriented Railway Network aims to boost Europe's declining rail sector by tackling efficiency, reliability and competitiveness problems. Measures proposed include harmonisation of train lengths and loads to increase inter-operability and prevent freight trains from being stopped and delayed at borders as a result of differing national standards. 

The EU executive hopes that such measures, along with increased cooperation between member states and infrastructure managers, will help to establish genuine 'freight-oriented corridors' capable of competing with road transport for heavy loads and long distances.

  • Each member state must provide at least one freight corridor within three years of the regulation's entry into force.

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