GOVERNMENT representatives from EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe were thin on the ground at Terrapinn's CEE Rail 2007 conference in Budapest on October 15-18. This was a pity, as several speakers drew attention to the collective failure of CEE governments to put the finances of their national railways in order.

Prof Adam Prokopowicz, Visiting Professor at the Warszawa School of Economics, said that railways in all CEE countries faced the same challenges, with reforms not delivering the expected results — partly because they remained unfinished. His comments were echoed by Paul Guitink, Policy Advisor on Central & Eastern Europe at the Community of European Railways, who highlighted the ongoing financial instability of CEE railways, the failure of states to end cross-subsidies and to compensate for losses incurred by operating socially-necessary passenger trains. We can but hope that a CER high-level conference on Public Service Obligation arrangements and the Third Railway Package planned for 2008 may lead to progress.

Happily, some evidence emerged at the conference that a new generation of management is wrestling successfully with the task of adapting to the market economy, but the way ahead is long and steep. István Heinczinger, CEO of MÁV, told delegates that the average age of MÁV's loco fleet was 35 years, that speed restrictions were in force on 44% of the network, and that 40% of Budapest suburban passengers travelled free of charge. Plans are in hand to modernise the rolling stock fleet (below) and address the other issues, but in Heinczinger's view the toughest job was to change staff attitudes.

The overall picture to emerge was that CEE railways need help. Fortunately, this has been recognised by the European Commission, which is offering expertise in preparing submissions for funding requests. The Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions (Jaspers) programme involving the Commission, EBRD and the European Investment Bank has been set up to help 12 CEE states, partly as a result of the poor quality of submissions, according to Pasquale Staffini, Transport Sector Specialist at the EIB. With 54 professional staff in three regional offices, Jaspers is free of charge to the beneficiary, and the programme — which concentrates on major projects — has been well received. Essentially it entails teaching the CEE railways to define objectives, to forget their history, and to be realistic.