IN ITS DRIVE to compel Europe’s railways to change course to avoid what it perceives to be a disastrous future, the European Commission is drawing up a raft of proposals that will bring about radical alterations in practice and policy. Both governments and railways will be required to implement policy changes so that the Commission’s objectives can be met.

Speaking at the Central & Eastern European Rail 2000 conference organised by AiC Worldwide in Budapest on April 4-6, John Wilson from the Directorate General for Transport & Energy described the central objective of EU railway policy as increasing use of rail to reduce congestion, pollution and accidents by raising competitiveness to the level of other modes. This was to be achieved by ’introducing market forces, integrating national rail systems and improving public services’.

In the last few months the proposals for infrastructure charging have generated much heated debate, while the topic of which organisations should have control over the allocation of paths has been even more controversial. Wilson said that a compromise will be worked out in the next few months, and this should see charges based on directly incurred costs, but with ’the possibility of mark-ups for higher cost recovery’.

Saying that ’open and fair procedures’ were needed for capacity allocation, he considered it ’unthinkable and a violation of European law’ for an infrastructure manager who also operates trains to be given the right to rule on access. Noting that the Council of Ministers is shortly expected to adopt a common position, he indicated that a decision on a final package could be expected in late 2000 or early 2001. Member states will then have two years to implement the new rules, probably in 2003-04. They will also apply to the ’candidate countries’ in Eastern Europe, as the rules will be in force from the day they join the EU.

Also gestating in the Directorate is a directive on interoperability for conventional lines. Based on the interoperability directive that has covered high speed lines since 1996, it was presented to the Council of Ministers at the end of last year in the Commission’s Communication on Integrating National Rail Systems. Preparation of the technical specifications is being handled by the European Association for Interoperability. The Communication and Directive are now being discussed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. Principal objective will be to draw up and agree common rules for certification of conformity for mutual recognition - thus an item of equipment authorised for use in Germany will be accepted for use in France. Wilson described this as ’a pretty radical step’ away from self-regulation, and in particular away from self-regulation of safety-related equipment.

Six areas for harmonisation have been identified: signalling, IT and telecommunications, rolling stock, noise, drivers’ qualifications, plus maintenance and repair. The Council of Ministers is expected to ’adopt a common position’ by the end of this year, and the Commission plans to launch the preparation of specifications in 2001.

A third area of significant change affects regulations covering the provision of public services. Replacing legislation that dates back 30 years, the proposals aim to end the imposition by governments of obligations on the railways or other operators to provide public services without a corresponding financial commitment. Once the rules are in place, public services will have to be procured by contracts that are transparent and have a finite time limit. Contracts will be awarded by open tender, but there will be a possibility of exemption for rail services ’when justified’.

In about a year’s time the Commission plans to begin the process of drawing up common rules for the regulation of railway safety; candidate countries will also have to conform.