PROPOSALS for three directives intended to prevent the national railways from blocking access to their tracks by competitors were launched by European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock on July 22. He said they would ’make a major contribution to ensuring that rail can compete effectively with other forms of transport’.
The first draft directive amends 91/440 to require the separation of infrastructure and train operating accounts to include balance sheets; at the moment, most EU state railways only produce separate profit and loss accounts which ignore investment. Separate accounts for passengers and freight would become mandatory, ensuring that payments intended for one activity could not be transferred to another.
Reinforcing the independence of infrastructure managers from undue influence by train operators within the same organisation (typically a state railway) is another objective. In future, infrastructure managers must prepare their own business plans including investment and finance, be responsible for their own staff and procurement, and manage their own asset base. However, the revised directive stops short of requiring a complete split between infrastructure and train operations at the corporate level.
An important change to Article 7 of 91/440 says that safety standards and rules must be laid down and enforced by ’bodies or undertakings that do not provide rail transport services themselves’. The aim is to ensure that established operators cannot misuse them as a way of excluding competitors.
The second directive amends 95/18, widening its scope to enable all kinds of railway undertaking seeking open access to be licensed as train operators, not just those seeking open access for international or combined transport operations. The only exclusions are passenger services on local stand-alone networks, urban services such as light rail, and ’shuttle services transporting road vehicles through the Channel Tunnel’. To qualify as a ’railway undertaking’ a company must ’ensure traction’.
The third and probably the most significant of the new directives effectively replaces 95/19. It sets out the framework under which any competent railway undertaking will be able to obtain and pay for train paths on the basis of short run marginal cost, and defines the rights and duties of both infrastructure managers and train operators. Operators must be able to bid for line capacity to an organisation which does not itself run trains, and will have a right of appeal.
This means that in countries where the infrastructure manager is still legally part of the corporate railway, as in Germany and France, a separate and legally independent body must be set up to allocate paths, which necessarily involves timetable preparation. In practice, it seems likely that this directive could result in DB Netz and RFF becoming truly independent of DB and SNCF, as has already happened in Sweden and Britain.
A primary objective of this directive is to make it possible for transport companies to operate international freight services on a profitable basis. A major obstacle is the huge variation in the scale and structure of infrastructure charges, with cost recovery ranging from 0% to (in principle, at least) 100%.
Article 8 of the directive states that track access charges ’shall be set at the cost that is directly incurred as a result of the operation of the trains’. While Article 9 offers some loopholes and exceptions to short-run marginal cost, it declares firmly that ’member states should in principle seek to ensure that any service which is able to pay at least the cost which it gives rise to is not prevented by the charging regime from utilising infrastructure capacity’.
Together, these three directives should push those EU railways and governments which have been dragging their feet a lot further towards genuine open access. The will and determination to succeed is undimmed in Neil Kinnock’s Transport Directorate; how long it takes to apply the principles set out in the directives on the ground remains to be seen. o