European Commission must act to liberalise rail freight
The European Union must enforce the spirit of its First Railway Package if the revitalisation of rail freight is to be achieved, argues Tony Berkeley, Chairman of the Rail Freight Group UK and a Board Member of the European Rail Freight Customer PlatformTHERE WAS a chilling reminder at the CEE Rail conference in Budapest (RG 11.06 p697) of just how far the European goal of open access and on-rail competition for freight traffic remains from reality.The European Commission and member states have all signed up to the First Railway Package, and should have implemented the regulations at least two years ago. The Commission has produced evidence that competition leads to growth, better customer service and more competitive prices, as we have seen in the UK already.But as well as the problems in the CEE countries mentioned last month, some states in 'old Europe' seem to be making little progress. In a number of countries, notably France, there is a serious lack of independence of the timetabling organisation from the train operators. With incumbent operators running the timetable, they inevitably give themselves the best slots as well as getting prior knowledge of their competitors' plans.Some member states still structure access charges with a large lump sum and a lower mileage charge, which again favours operators who can spread the lump sum over a larger number of trains. Again and again we heard about problems of new entrants crossing borders, where restrictive practices should have been abolished so that operators can be treated equally. There is an ongoing problem over access to terminals and marshalling yards. Whereas some intermodal terminals have been open-access since they were developed, this is not the case generally for wagonload traffic, which is why the First Railway Package requires such terminals to be open-access. Too many incumbent operators are scrapping wagons or locomotives, rather than selling them to potential competitors. Since these will have been purchased with public money or state aid, it could be argued that such disposal is an abuse of this provision. It demonstrates a serious failure by the member states to encourage liberalisation in a positive manner.And finally, a court in Germany has recently ruled that monopoly provider DB can supply electric traction power and diesel fuel to its competitors at any price it wants, without having to declare the price it charges to itself. How transparent is that?Rail freight customers remain deeply concerned. The current situation is fragile. New entrants face multiple problems, often caused by lack of fair implementation or application of the Directives. Few have the resources to fight endless procedural battles, or to start legal action against an incumbent operator able to call on government support. I therefore believe that it is essential that the Commission takes urgent action to require member states' governments to deliver and implement the full agenda, and deploys sufficient staff to initiate infringement or anti-competitive actions against offending member states. It is not sufficient to pass EU legislation and then sit back and hope that everything will happen as planned. A competitive marketplace requires nurturing and encouraging in detail as well as in policy, and it needs to be done proactively. Without the private sector demonstrating quality and creativity, there is every prospect of rail freight dying across Europe. With the private sector setting an example, incumbent railways will also be encouraged to change their ways, so that the rail industry and society alike will benefit.