TO JUDGE from her keynote speech to The Economist freight conference in Brussels on January 28, the EC’s new Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is every bit as determined as her predecessor to drive through reforms needed to correct rail’s seemingly intractable failure to compete for international traffic. ’Governments still intervene too much in rail operations’, she says, and this is ’quite unacceptable’. She seeks ’independent regulatory rules at the European level to allocate capacity, licence its use, and set safety standards that are acceptable’, and directives ’will be in place by the end of this year’.

Noting that transport demand is set to rise 30% in the next 20 years, she believes a ’new balance’ between modes is ’essential if the EU is to retain its growth’. Later this year, a new transport white paper will make it clear ’we do not accept the decline of rail’ - indeed, ’we want to put the emphasis on rail.’

Fine words, but Brussels bureaucrats are no match for their railway counterparts - not to mention government agencies - when it comes to thinking up reasons why freight trains should hang around at frontiers while passengers run straight through. EC sponsored reforms have a vital role, but only railwaymen can actually deliver the speed and reliability that logistics companies demand.

Given the early reform of NS, it comes as no surprise to find the Dutch busily constructing a Trojan horse called Effort (Europe Fast Freight on Rail Transit). Alsmeer, near Schiphol airport, is home to the world’s largest international flower market, and this has attracted temperature-controlled logistics providers at the top end of the quality transport chain. They fly it in. They truck it out.

But latterly, road congestion has affected reliability. In steps NS Internationaal, with a proposal for a Dutch-controlled overnight sleeper train between Amsterdam and Milano (RG 2.00 p66). The logistics companies, including Unilever and KLM, sit down with NS Cargo (Railion Benelux since January 1) and the plot is hatched. First, establish a 160 km/h passenger schedule with ’baggage’ cars; then add flat wagons carrying specially designed swap bodies with roller floors capable of taking air freight pallets and high-value temperature controlled goods.

Hey presto! A 15h freight transit previously deemed impossible by timetable planners in four countries will exist from May 28. Reliability is assured by detaching the freight at Greco Pirelli 15min before the passengers are due at Milano Centrale. Now what about a 15h non-stop overnight freight from London to München with a couple of those Channel Tunnel sleeping cars nobody seems to want hung on the back?