Further liberalisation of train operations across Europe will come into effect over the next three years, following a vote by the European Parliament on September 25 adopting three 'conciliation agreements' on the Third Railway Package.
Intended to open up the rail market further, the Third Railway Package was introduced by the European Commission in 2004. Building on the reform of infrastructure management and liberalisation of freight train operations in the First and Second packages, the Third is mainly focused on passenger services and certification of train crews. Some of the proposals proved controversial with the EU member states, leading to lengthy negotiations between the commission, the parliament and the Council of Ministers.
The three conciliation agreements were reached by the Council in June, paving the way for the package to be returned to the Parliament for final approval. Each agreement covers one of the three main measures in the package:
- Liberalisation of the market for operation of international passenger trains
- Creation of a European licencing system for train drivers
- Standardisation of rights for passengers using long-distance and international rail services.
Proposals for the liberalisation of domestic passenger trains and licencing of other train crew members have been deferred but remain under consideration for the longer term.
International passenger services within the EU will be opened up to competition from January 1 2010, after parliament voted 541:66 to adopt the conciliation agreement.
The European Parliament's rapporteur for this directive, Georg Jarzembowski (EPP-ED, DE) expressed the hope that railway undertakings 'will take the opportunity to present their passengers [with] consumer-friendly offers that will be competitive to air carriers', which he suggested would 'lead to a revival of the Community's cross-border railway transport and to a better environment'.
Jarzembowski regretted that the required majority had not been reached at second reading for the opening up of domestic passenger services to competition. However, the conciliation agreement requires the Commission to table a report on the application of the directive in 2012. This will include an assessment of whether further liberalisation should be pursued.
A Directive will come into force in 2009 introducing a European licence for train drivers. All drivers will be required to hold a certificate stating that they meet minimum requirements relating to medical fitness, basic education and general professional skills.
The Commission's original proposals envisaged extending this requirement to other train staff, but this was rejected by the Council. Following pressure from the Parliament, the European Railway Agency has now been instructed to draw up a report, 18 months after the directive enters into force, identifying 'any other train staff performing safety-critical tasks who should be subject to a similar system of licences'. The Commission must then present its own report no more than 12 months after the ERA study, 'accompanied, if appropriate, by a proposal for a new law'.
Rapporteur Gilles Savary (PES, FR), said he was satisfied that by 2012 crew members other than train drivers performing safety-critical tasks may be included within the scope of the directive. 'The agreement is an example of good social dialogue at European level and of social interoperability also for others than train drivers', he explained
The regulation on the rights and obligations of rail passengers was originally intended to apply only to passengers on international journeys but pressure from MEPs and 'arduous negotiations' resulted in what rapporteur Dirk Sterckx (ALDE, BE) described as an 'honourable compromise' extending some rights to passengers on domestic journeys.
When the law enters force in 2009, all rail passengers will enjoy a set of basic rights (covering issues such as train operators' liability for passengers and their luggage, and a basic right to transport for people with reduced mobility. Compensation in the event of delays on cross-border services will be 25% of the fare for a delay of 60 minutes or more and 50% for a delay of 120 minutes or more, provided that the operator can reasonably be held responsible for the delay.
The package includes further 'non-basic' rights - such as the right of a passenger to take a bicycle on a train. However, Member States may exempt long-distance domestic services from these rights for an initial period of five years, which may subsequently be extended for two further periods of up to five years. Urban, suburban and regional services can be granted an indefinite exemption. Under the conciliation agreement, the Council accepted Parliament's demand for a review every five years of any exemptions from these rights which Member States grant to their domestic train operators.
The head of the Parliament's negotiating team, Vice-President Alejo Vidal-Quadras (EPP-ED, ES) described the proposal as 'a genuinely European law' which 'gets away from old-fashioned obsessions with national borders and gives basic rights to passengers on all railway journeys'. In particular, he emphasised 'passengers on all long-distance journeys will be treated the same, whether or not their journey crosses national borders'.
Welcoming the conciliation agreement as a fair compromise, European Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot confirmed that the Commission would come forward with reports on the certification of other train crew and liberalisation of the national railway market.