ANOTHER faltering step was taken on November 22 in the tortuous process of introducing competition into the European rail freight industry. Strongly opposed by France from the outset, the liberalisers have had to give way on several counts, and the agreement falls far short of what was once envisaged.

Building on an earlier compromise hammered out by transport ministers in December 1999 (RG 1.00 p3), the accord covering the ’railway package’ was finally reached under a ’conciliation procedure’ between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. It instigates modifications to or replacement of the railway policy Directives 91/440, 95/18 and 95/19. Hailed by Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio as ’a veritable revolution’, it sets out a timetable for the introduction of open access for international freight. This will initially be limited to the Trans-European Rail Freight Network, a set of designated trunk routes that will stretch from Greece to Scotland and Spain to Finland. Terfn will be accessible to operators with the necessary safety and operating licences from January 1 2003. Only seven years after the Directives become effective will open access be extended to the whole of Europe’s rail network.

Separation of operations and infrastructure is to become mandatory, and an independent rail regulator will be established in each EU member country to issue licences; the Commission may intervene if it believes that competition rules are being flouted. The principle of pricing access on the basis of marginal costs incurred by the infrastructure operator has been retained. Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and Austria have secured temporary exemptions. Passenger services remain untouched for now, but de Palacio intends to bring forward a draft directive later this year.