EU railway rules ‘bad for commuters’

Focusing on “glossy” international rail projects could hinder the development of suburban railways that are essential to tackle congestion and environmental problems in European cities, according to new research.

The third railway package focuses predominantly on international services and problems related to cross-border operation, despite the fact that the rules will also, in many cases, be extended to suburban and regional railways.

This could severely hinder the development of such domestic short-distance operations, according to rail and public transport operators. 

A new study, conducted by the International Association for Public Transport (UITP) in the frame of the European Rail Research Advisory Group (ERRAC) and presented on 9 January 2007, reveals that there are nine times more passengers using commuter and regional rail services (to carry out short journeys of around 25km on average) than those on international or long-distance trips. 

Short-distance European railways carry nearly seven billion passengers per year, against 1.25 billion passengers over the past 25 years for France’s TGV, for example. 

Despite the importance of this sector, its specificities are being ignored by EU rules, says the UITP. 

A particular concern for the business sector is the Parliament’s decision to extend legislation on international passenger rights and certification of train crews to all domestic services. 

Application of ill-adapted, overly bureaucratic rules could hinder the development of a transport sector crucial to helping European cities deal with congestion and pollution problems

According to UITP figures, the use of regional and commuter trains helps Europe avoid each year: 

  • 24 million km of traffic jams;
  • 30 million tonnes of CO2, and;
  • 1,312 human deaths and 36,800 injuries.

Hans Rat, secretary-general of the International Association for Public Transport (UITP), said that the EU focused much too much on "glossy" trans-European projects, such as high-speed trains. He stressed that it needed to re-direct its attention towards regional projects that play a "decisive role" for the revitalisation of cities and the improvement of public transport services. 

Michel Quidort, chairman of the UITP Regional Railway Committee, said: "The trend to encompass al railways in the same policies and to request the same inter-operability demands and technical specifications is hindering the development of regional rail." 

He particularly emphasised that EU rules on passenger rights must not be applied to regional rail, saying that this issue must be dealt with inside a contract between the local authority and the local operator. "The subsidiarity principle must be applied to avoid creating an impossible bureaucratic situation and to accommodate very specific local conditions," he stressed. 

Also, on certification of train crew, the UITP believes that the single driver licence proposed by the Commission is "in contradiction with the need to have specific knowledge of the line and the rolling stock". Laurent Dauby of the UITP, in charge of the study "Suburban and Regional Railway Landscape in Europe", insisted that even if some recommendations are welcome at the European level, many of the demands made by European legislation will bring "zero added-value for the customer". 

While cautious about demanding the full exclusion of suburban and regional rail from the third railway package, he insisted on "at least a serious economic evaluation to see if it makes sense to include this segment in the legislation". 

The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) stressed that the application of harmonised passenger rights on a national level would prove unworkable and urged the EU to respect the variety of national conditions and railway system realities. It gave an example: "Only 3% of the stations in Hungary are physically accessible to persons with reduced mobility, compared to 75% in the UK. Hungarian trains are on average nearly 29 years old, and inevitably less reliable than modern trains in Western Europe…huge investments would be necessary to achieve the same passengers' rights standards throughout Europe. The problem is that today, in central and eastern Europe the money is urgently needed for the basic operation of the system itself." 

However, consumers want the rules applied to all rail services. The European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC) stated: "We do support the application of the regulation to every passenger, i.e. international and national as we think that every passenger should be able to benefit from the same minimum level of protection across the EU…It would be difficult to argue that national passengers have more limited rights compared to international passengers." 

The Parliament's Transport Committee agreed with consumers that: "Ordinary rail passengers should not be left out in the cold," and decided, in December 2006, to extend proposals on international passengers' rights and obligations to domestic rail traffic. Belgian rapporteur Dirk Sterckx (ALDE) said that there was no point in drawing up a regulation which applied only to the 5% rail passengers who use international train services. The Committee felt that this regulation should give European citizens the confidence that, in the event of problems, there were certain minimum rights upon which they could rely. 

With climate change and environmental issues topping the EU agenda, there is an increasing focus on the need to develop more energy-efficient means of transport, including rail. 

Work on strengthening the European railway sector has been ongoing over the past 15 years, with the adoption of two packages of legislation that aim to open up rail transport to competition and harmonise standards across Europe. 

A third legislative package, aimed at liberalising international passenger transport and improving passenger-rights protection, was proposed by the Commission in March 2004 and is currently being examined by the Parliament in second reading. 

  • 19 December 2006: second reading vote held in the EP’s Transport Committee. 
  • 17 January 2007: probable second reading in Parliament. 
  • The conciliation procedure will likely be necessary to solve differences of opinion between the EP and Council. 

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