POLICYMAKERS, operators and shippers met in Ljubljana at the end of May to debate the future of rail freight in Europe. The occasion was a seminar organised by the International Railway Congress Association entitled Rail Freight Business in a New Century (p399). The event saw important policy differences emerge in public. Topping the agenda of controversial topics were the European Commission’s policy of liberalisation and the cost of interoperability and ERTMS/ETCS.

In a forthright presentation, Jean-Arnold Vinois, Head of the Rail Transport & Interoperability Unit in the European Commission’s DG TREN, called for help ’to create the railways of a new continent’. Noting that rail had been ’a major tool to divide Europe’ in the past, he said that the Commission was keen to ensure that the railways will serve the enlarged European Union, but warned that they ’started from a very nationalistic position’ and that it was essential ’to breach national monopolies’. Attacking the attitude of national operators, he said they had been ’acting against the spirit of the Community’. ’What happens on the railways is exactly the opposite - that is what we want to change’, he continued, drawing attention to a proposal by DB Chairman Hartmut Mehdorn that German experts should develop rail freight across Europe while the French assumed responsibility for high speed passenger services.

Warning that ’safety rules should not be used as an entry barrier’ for new operators, Vinois outlined his view of the remit of the nascent European Rail Agency, which he said would start work in early 2005. Still uncertain is the relationship between the ERA and the International Union of Railways, which until recently has been the guardian of international technical standards in much of Europe.

Noting that the Second Railway Package had been in force since April 30 2004, Vinois told delegates that ’we are suing at least nine member states for non-application of the First Railway Package’ at the European Court of Justice, adding that there were ’six or seven cases’ about state aid to railways with the Commission. Despite this, he felt that ’things are moving now’ and freight ’is coming back’ to rail in some member states.

Touching on interoperability, Vinois said that the Commission was preparing a ’European deployment plan for Ertms’. However, much concern remains among operators about how, or even if, it can be funded - one fear is that funds earmarked for other projects will be raided to pay for Ertms.

Klaus-J Meyer of the European Rail Freight Association representing private operators considered that ’interoperability is very, very expensive’ and could take the cost of a locomotive from €3m to €4m. He believed that it was ’absolutely vital’ to find simple methods to achieve interoperability. ’Often it is co-operation’, he suggested, ’perhaps with different partners and different locos - we need simple solutions that are low-cost.’