AS EXPECTED, the EU Council of Transport Ministers backed the Commission’s ’railway package’ when they met in Brussels on December 9 - 10. Even France voted in favour of a circumscribed form of open access; only Portugal abstained. Three draft directives, amending 91/440 and 95/18 and replacing 95/19, are now expected to become law in a matter of months. A proposed directive on interoperability and a paper on bottlenecks affecting Trans-European Networks also got the Council’s blessing.

The primary purpose of the draft directives approved last month is to define the Trans-European Rail Freight Network. They also provide a legal platform that will enable railway undertakings to use it with or without the blessing of the incumbent national operator - which in every country except Britain remains state-owned. Maps annexed to 91/440 will show the TERFN trunk routes, along with strategic links to ports and industries where open access is to be permitted.

The compromise of limiting open access geographically was a price the Commission had to pay to buy French acquiescence to a principle that had previously been rejected out of hand. SNCF had successfully resisted even the limited open access provisions of the original directive. A seriously over-manned workforce held successive governments in thrall through a constant threat of strikes, with the result that domestic intermodal operator CNC lost 20% of its business in 1998-99, and use of the Channel Tunnel by rail freight has dropped below 3 million tonnes a year. In the light of this experience, we can only wait to see what actually happens when foreign operators attempt - later this year, perhaps - to exercise a right of passage.

Not that the hundred flowers of open access that were supposed to bloom after 1991 are conspicuous elsewhere. The crucial difference between rail access and other utilities such as electricity, gas and telecoms, passing an essentially homogeneous product through fixed wires or pipes, lies in the ease with which a hostile infrastructure operator can obstruct unwelcome train operators. The new directives attempt to address this issue in a number of ways.

Greater transparency to identify the true cost of infrastructure, freight and passenger operations is one, although actual separation is still optional. Allocation of capacity, the determination of track access charges, and the licensing of open access operators must be in the hands of a body independent of the national railway undertaking. In principle, licences granted to an operator by any member state will be valid throughout the EU, as is already the case with roads and inland waterways. Access charges are supposed to be based on the marginal cost incurred by the infrastructure provider - although nobody can explain how asset renewal, let alone expansion of capacity, is to be funded.

It is very commendable that EU governments and the Commission are willing to keep trying to reverse rail’s declining market share (now 14% of tonne-km) in the face of so many disappointments. Whatever became of TERFFs? Several delegates to Intermodal ’99 on December 8 - 10 deplored the chronic inability to deliver reliable service across frontiers. The unified management spanning half a continent which enables US Class I railways to hold market share close to 40% is sorely needed in fragmented Europe. Yet it is hard to see how reverting to vertical integration, as Rob Martinez of Norfolk Southern urged, could help freight where the absolute priority accorded to passengers is part of the problem. Britain’s junior transport minister Keith Hill hit the nail on the head when he observed ruefully ’rail is the only sector still untouched by the single market.’

  • On December 10 Banestyrelsen announced the first award of open access paths for freight and passenger operators in Denmark, to apply from the summer 2000 timetable. The competition has been spurred by the impending opening of the Øresund fixed link, offering a through rail route between Sweden and mainland Europe. Amongst the applications approved, Sønderjylland-based PBS/Eurorail gets rights to run from Padborg to Frederikshavn and Tinglev to København, Sweden’s TGOJ gets three daily freight trains from Malm