ONCE AGAIN, the European Commission is seeking to inject fresh impetus into rail freight services. The torrent of legislation that led to the full opening of the rail freight market in January 2007 has brought modest success in some countries where tonnage is rising, but the Commission notes that rail's share of inland freight transport fell steadily in the 10 years to 2005, levelling off at around 17%. This clearly excludes the impact of full market-opening, but the Commission believes rightly that more needs to be done 'given the steady increase in the efficiency of road transport'.

Hence the 'communication' entitled Towards a Rail Network Giving Priority to Freight, published by DG Tren on October 17. Forming part of a logistics package 'aimed at achieving greater efficiency and sustainability', the document proposes 'a series of financial and legislative measures aimed at promoting the development of a European freight-oriented rail network, corridor by corridor'. Taking the six designated ERTMS corridors as a starting point, the Commission will propose a legal definition of a freight-oriented corridor structure and set out the rules that apply to it, with each member state expected to be participating in one corridor by 2012. This will be followed by legislation requiring quality indicators for the corridor to be drawn up and published, with the option of applying mandatory technical characteristics. Further legislation on the allocation of train paths is envisaged, with the possibility that customers as well as operators will be able to request paths. To avoid freight being unfairly delayed after an incident causing disruption, standard rules on giving freight priority are anticipated. Legislation may also be introduced to ensure that access to terminals and yards is made easier for non-incumbents.

Some of this is a response to the proposals put forward by the Community of European Railways, which had argued for investment in key corridors (RG 10.07 p606). Much could be achieved by increasing train lengths to 750 m and later to 1 500 m, raising axleload limits to 22·5 tonnes, lifting line speeds to 100 km/h and upping gross loads to 2 000 tonnes — all of which are envisaged.

Perhaps most promising among the proposals is the idea of developing the management structure devised for the ERTMS corridors into a properly co-ordinated body with direct responsibility as a European Economic Interest Group (GEIE). The structures for corridors C and D already conform to these requirements, and preparations are being made to achieve GEIE status for corridors A and E. Common management may do more than technical measures such as ETCS to achieve improvements in punctuality, reliability, information management, productivity, average speed and flexibility — all listed by the Commission as weaknesses of rail freight.

The next step will be to set up a group of 12 to 15 individuals who the Commission 'will use for inspiration when setting the Action Plans' for the logistics package, as Enrico Grillo-Pasquarelli, Director General for Inland Transport at DG Tren, told a meeting of the European Infrastructure Managers Association on October 16.

In the immediate future a TEN-T Executive Agency is being set up to manage the TEN funding programme, while a two-year review of the TEN projects will begin in 2008. Next year will also see the Commission start work on a 'recast' of the First Railway Package, and beyond that lies the development of a European Rail Technical Strategy.