A SEMINAR has been organised in Brussels on February 23 for the purpose of dispelling myths and misconceptions that have gained currency among the ranks of senior rail managers in Europe about the outcome of Britain’s unique privatisation experiment in the mid-1990s.

This event was triggered by letters sent last autumn by UK Rail Freight Group Chairman Lord Berkeley to officials of DB AG and the Community of European Railways. Berkeley was critical of statements suggesting that rail reform in Britain had been a ’total catastrophe’, to quote Joachim Fried, DB’s Corporate Representative for European Affairs & Competition. Berkeley pointed out that passenger-km and freight tonne-km had increased very substantially, and safety statistics showed that UK railways compared favourably with other European networks.

Attendance at the seminar is by invitation only from European Rail Infrastructure Managers, which is organising the event. Co-sponsors are the European Rail Freight Customer Platform and the European Rail Freight Association.

EIM claims that ’the general opinion of the UK railway structure is one of regular serious accidents, poor performance and reliability, reduced passenger and freight traffic and very high costs. Such at least is the perception with officials from Member States, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the many rail-related organisations represented in Brussels. This is used as a reason for opposing the full implementation of the EU open access proposals, and results in a lack of competition, poor service quality and reduced traffic volumes in many parts of Europe.’

ERFCP Vice President Frank Otten is chairing the seminar, but the speakers are from the UK. They include Mark Lambirth, Director of Rail Strategy at the Department for Transport, which assumed overall control of the ’privatised’ network in 2005; Ian McAllister, Chairman of Network Rail; Chris Bolt, Chairman of the Office of Rail Regulation, Adrian Shooter, who chairs the Association of Train Operating Companies which represents passenger operators, as well as senior figures from freight operators and their customers.

They will say that costs have indeed been driven up in the past decade, but things are now improving; privatisation has not been a total disaster. Above all, perhaps, if rail freight is to grow and prosper elsewhere in Europe as it has in Britain, there must be genuine separation of open access train operations from infrastructure management, coupled with independent and competent regulation to secure private investment.