SPEAKING at the Community of European Railways’ annual reception in Brussels on February 17, Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio expressed alarm at the slow progress being made with turning round Europe’s rail freight businesses.

’The overall situation of rail freight is really worrying. The rail market share continues to drop, quality has not really been improved, and several railway undertakings are in great financial difficulties’, she warned. She noted that in member states where competition exists ’quality is improving, costs are reduced and the overall rail market is growing again’, but she attacked the reluctance of some countries to embrace competition policy: ’I certainly regret that many Member States are lagging behind: we had to open seven infringement procedures against Member States who have not transposed [the First Railway Package] yet’. She added that further infringement procedures would be started against states ’who have not correctly transposed it in our opinion’.

Interoperability remained high up the agenda, and de Palacio said ’purchase and maintenance costs can be tremendously reduced if we proceed actively towards standardisation’. The objective is to reduce costs by 30% to 50%, which would only be possible ’if all actors put aside traditional railway nationalism and its related technical protectionism’. On Ertms, she said the Commission was preparing ’a co-ordinated deployment plan to be tabled this year’.

While the Second Railway Package remains mired in ’conciliation procedures’, with the next meeting set for March 16, de Palacio announced that four proposals for the Third Railway Package will be presented to her fellow commissioners for adoption ’in the next few weeks’.

First is a draft directive on certification of train drivers, which will take into account an agreement reached between the CER and the European Transport Federation on January 27. Second is a proposal on the opening-up of the international passenger market, a move that enjoys strong support from the European Parliament. Third is a draft regulation on passengers’ rights in international transport, and fourth is a draft regulation on ’contractual quality requirements for rail freight services’. De Palacio acknowledged that the CER ’does not totally agree’ with the proposals, but it looks as if the Commission is gradually winning its battle to introduce on-rail competition. France’s agreement to grant a licence to Europorte 2 (right) may be the most significant development yet.