ON JUNE 2 the Council of Ministers approved a Directive which lays down working hours and conditions for train crew who cross frontiers between EU member states. This will apply the force of law to the terms of an agreement signed on January 27 2004 between the European Transport Workers’ Federation and the Community of European Railways.

The European Rail Freight Association, representing independent operators, and the European Rail Freight Customers’ Platform, which lobbies for major rail users, have protested in the strongest terms that CER’s position has been used to bolster the state railways against open access competitors.

ERFA had already warned on May 26 that ’in a liberalised market it is unacceptable for CER, which represents the traditional rail operators, to be regarded as the sole body at EU level representing all railway undertakings, including its competitors’.

ERFCP commented on June 3 that ’this agreement hampers the development of competition between different railways on the same track. Intramodal competition is in our view the most appropriate tool to increase rail freight quality and productivity.’

The Council’s decision came just 11 days before Connex launched the first open access freight service in France (p409). It was also just 11 years after the first freight train passed through the Channel Tunnel, launching a service that is widely seen as having failed. EWS subsidiary EuroCargoRail is among several companies waiting to exploit the opportunity of competing on French tracks, and if both France and the Tunnel are opened up together with realistic access charges, in combination they represent a huge new market for rail.

Though not the only constraint, the most serious is that it becomes illegal for train drivers to spend more than one night away from home. Easy enough for Eurostar, perhaps, but a small freight operator starting up will find it impossible to balance workings so that trains are available to be driven both ways. Drivers may have to be flown home to sleep, and perhaps even flown out again next day. Worse still, no such provision is planned for lorry drivers or air crew.

Addressing the Rail Freight 2005 conference in London on June 10, Enrico Grillo-Pasquarelli, the European Commission’s Director for Land Transport at DG-TREN, said ’we are not very happy with this decision that has been taken by the Council’. Referring to this and other barriers contrived by national railways to block competition, he said ’we are trying to do something about this [and] more than happy to receive information or complaints about such obstacles.’