EU urged to remove barriers to competitive rail freight


Major obstacles such as powerful state-run companies’ tendency to overcharge operators for using infrastructure and the fact that EU ‘priority corridor’ projects are often built according to short-term national political interests are seriously hampering the development of a competitive European rail freight industry, stakeholders argued at a recent conference on the sector’s future.

While European legislation has helped shift freight from road to rail, conditions must still be improved to help the booming business further, stakeholders argued at EurailFreight 2009, an event organised by the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER). 

Debating the new challenges facing rail liberalisation on 20 January, CEOs of leading railway companies underlined that adequate infrastructure, low infrastructure charges and interoperability improvements are “as essential as liberalisation itself” for stimulating growth and attracting new entrants to the market.

“Rail freight has successfully developed in countries that have invested in rail, either by means of direct financing or low infrastructure charges. This is the basic requirement to foster competition in the railway market and to boost the development of rail freight,” said Antoine Hurel, CEO of private railway company Veolia. 

“New entrants need to finance their own resources and have to have rather short returns on investment because of private investors,” he said, adding that the lack of strong national regulators represents another problem, because it leads to confusion between infrastructure managers – the former monopolies – and operators. “While the goal of liberalisation is to improve quality and services for citizens, state-run companies inevitably have the tendency to please their employees and unions rather than clients,” he argued.

According to industry, competition between road and rail is unfair as rail freight operators are charged 2.5 times more than road operators for using infrastructure. 

The Czech EU Presidency underlined that with a steady increase in road transport, it is necessary to establish equal and competitive conditions in the transport market and eliminate barriers preventing increased use of rail, which has an “undisputable advantage” over its main competitor (road) as an “environmentally-friendly transport mode”. 

Karel van Miert, a former EU transport commissioner and currently coordinator of a TEN-T rail corridor project, also urged the Commission to ensure that rail liberalisation works, is fair and gives companies access to infrastructure.

Van Miert also said Europe lacks a coherent transport infrastructure policy and vision. Current TEN-T priority projects have been tabled by national governments based on short-term political interests and without proper coordination between governments, railway companies and regions, he lamented. 

The European Commission agreed that the Union’s network policy needs reviewing to allow it to respond better to current challenges, such as climate change and enlargement, which was not an issue fifteen years ago.

A Commission Green Paper on the future of TEN-T policy is set to be adopted next month and will, according to the EU exeutive’s transport chief, Jonathan Scheele, represent a shift from a mere infrastructure approach to a genuine “network policy approach”, addressing services, logistics, importance of terminals and co-modality of different means of transport.

European freight forwarders' association CLECAT notes that "non-discriminatory access to infrastructure" is indeed a key means of promoting efficient use of the European rail network infrastructure and a precondition of full and fair competition. 

The association believes the competitiveness of the rail market can be strengthened by obliging member states "to enlarge their choice of customers and to assign slots to different 'authorised applicants', such as a freight forwarders or shippers and not just to traditional freight forwarders". Implementation of the concept of 'authorised applicants' is currently optional. 

Freight transport in Europe 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 harmonising train lengths and loads to increase interoperability and prevent freight trains from being stopped and delayed at borders as a result of differing national standards. 

In December 2008, the EU executive adopted a proposal for a regulation which aims 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 (EURACTIV 15/12/08).

  • Feb. 2009: European Commission to adopt a Green Paper on the future of TEN-T policy.

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