MARCH 28 saw the Council of Transport Ministers vote to accelerate proposals to introduce more competition on Europe’s rail network. The Council’s position on the Second Railway Package brings forward from 2008 to January 2006 full deregulation of international rail freight, not just on Terfn routes where competition became legal from March 15 this year. In 2008 competition will apply to domestic freight too, with companies permitted to undertake cabotage; for example, a Belgian operator will be allowed to carry freight on internal routes within Germany.

It will come as no surprise that voting at the Council was not unanimous; France, Belgium and Luxembourg opposed the plans. French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien said that France was not against the opening up of the freight business to competition, but that it had to be done in a controlled fashion. He repeated his government’s view that it wanted to evaluate the effects of the First Railway Package before launching the Second (RG 3.03 p135). The Second Package, which includes Directives on safety, interoperability, opening up of the market and a regulation to establish the European Railway Agency, has still to be agreed by the European Parliament, where it is due to receive a second reading later this year.

Assuming that it is passed, the legislation will bring momentous change to Europe’s railways. Effectively, it could spell the end for the national freight businesses in their present form. When competition for passenger traffic is introduced - the Commission confirmed on March 28 that proposals will be published by the end of this year - the national railways may see their role diminish, perhaps to the point where they are no longer recognisable - as has already happened in Britain.

The Council’s decision was welcomed by the European Rail Freight Association, which would like to see earlier introduction of competition for domestic freight. EIM, the European Rail Infrastructure Managers’ group, also welcomed the ruling, agreeing with the need for common standards to measure safety, and for higher national safety standards when appropriate - a measure promoted by the French but opposed by the Dutch, who see it as a possible protectionist ploy. Sensibly, EIM suggested that a phased approach should be adopted for implementation of interoperability standards on a line-of-route basis, starting with defined international routes.

Significantly, opening up of the freight network was given the seal of approval on April 16 by UIC Chairman Benedikt Weibel, who also heads Swiss Federal Railways. In one of 10 statements at a press conference, Weibel said ’open access advocated by the EU in the First and Second Railway Packages will have positive repercussions. Freight transport companies will be responsible to customers for the entire transport chain irrespective of physical boundaries.’ He acknowledged that ’the railway’s great weakness is that it has failed to exploit its assets in cross-border traffic’, but he felt that it was time ’to dispel the myth that was launched in mid-1997 and frequently and repeatedly quoted since then about freight trains crossing Europe at an average speed of 16 to 18 km/h ... the essential point for customers is to be sure that their goods will be delivered to the right place at the agreed time with faultless quality.’

The reality of rail freight in some countries is still far from this aspiration, as we noted in this column last month, but small steps are being taken towards a more competitive future. For example, DB Cargo has recently launched a new container subsidiary called Railion Intermodal Traction, which starts life with a fleet of 50 locomotives. DB Cargo is working with Osthannoversche Eisenbahn to develop use of the internet by its freight customers under a €4·8m programme funded by the Federal Ministry of Research.

In Switzerland, SBB is assessing two options for the future of its loss-making wagonload business, one of which will be implemented by 2006. ’Resizing’ would cut the present 693 terminals to the 250 which handle 90% of the business, the rest would be served by road. ’Optimisation’ would keep all terminals open, but less-busy destinations would be served later in the day, to allow better use of locomotives and staff. Both options will see staff numbers cut through natural wastage or redeployment.