AGREEMENT between Europe’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament has been reached on the Third Railway Package, and ratification is anticipated in a vote during a plenary session in Strasbourg in September.

A ‘conciliation agreement’ was confirmed by an exchange of letters on June 20. Implementation of the Third Package will see international passenger services opened up to competition from January 1 2010, and there is a requirement for the European Commission to assess within two years after the Directive comes into force if domestic services should also be liberalised. Given that French President Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded at a European Union summit on June 24 in having a reference to ‘free and undistorted competition’ as one of the Union’s principal objectives removed from the proposed EU treaty, the chances of competition becoming mandatory on domestic passenger services would appear somewhat diminished.

The requirement for train drivers to hold a certificate stating that they meet minimum requirements in terms of medical fitness, education and professional skills was agreed. The European Railway Agency is to draw up a report 18 months after the Directive enters force identifying other staff performing safety-critical tasks who should also be required to hold a licence. On the assumption that this policy is accepted, the European Commission will then have 12 months in which to propose a new law.

Compromise was finally reached on passengers’ rights, with the Parliament persuading the Council that domestic as well as international passengers should be covered by the law when it comes into force in 2009. However, apart from certain basic rights, indefinite exemptions will be granted for short-distance services, and states will be able to exempt long-distance domestic rail services from certain provisions for an initial period of five years, with two further five-year periods to follow.

Passengers’ rights on international services include compensation worth 25% of the fare for a delay of 1 h or more and 50% for a delay of 2 h or more – provided that the operator is responsible for the delay. Ultimately, the same arrangements are envisaged for long-distance domestic services.

MEPs in the Transport Committee were later required to turn their attention to a report on freight transport logistics by MEP Inés Ayala Sander. The report included a proposal to allow rules on lorry sizes to be changed to permit a weight of 60 tonnes or a length of 25 m, but during a vote on July 12 an amendment was adopted requiring member states to seek explicit permission from the European Commission if they wished to authorise such vehicles.

The Commission is shortly to launch a study on the possible effects of mega-trucks on the European road network, other than in Sweden and Finland where they are already permitted. Pressure to sanction the use of larger lorries is certain to rise, and Europe’s railway organisations launched their own campaign against the proposal on July 20. Publishing a document setting out the likely effects of mega-trucks, UIC, CER, EIM, UIRR, Unife and ERFA warned that they would cause a ‘re-shift’ of traffic from rail to road, putting intermodal traffic in particular at risk; a study by English Welsh & Scottish Railway has indicated that bulk traffic could also switch to road.

The railway organisations also drew attention to the need for significant levels of funding to strengthen bridges and modify road infrastructure to accommodate heavier and longer vehicles, warning also that the external costs generated by heavier lorries would not be borne by users but by taxpayers. CER took the opportunity of emphasising these points at a meeting with Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot on July 18, calling for the EU to integrate its transport and environmental policies. Use of mega-trucks, it said, would reduce prices in the road sector as external costs were not taken into account – so switching traffic from rail to road and contradicting a fundamental tenet of EU transport policy.

A pointer to the likely outcome of the debate may come on October 10 when transport ministers in the German Länder are due to decide whether giant lorries should be permitted on German roads.