PUBLIC SKIRMISHING has broken out at the start of what promises to be a long battle with the European Commission over the reintegration of operations and infrastructure. The Commission’s policy is based on the premise of intra-modal competition, which presupposes separation to ensure fair access, so the chances of reintegration are small in the foreseeable future. Despite this, there are compelling reasons for the EU to pay attention to the arguments.

Among the first to break cover was Dr-Ing Uwe Thomas, Germany’s Secretary of State for Research, who noted in his opening speech to WCRR 2001 in Köln (p19) that Directives 12 to 14/2001 assume separation of infrastructure from operations but ’miss the key point ...they are quite suitable for regional freight traffic on a lightly-used route, but on a line at the limits of capacity they are an obstacle to solving the problem.’ Thomas warned that the railway should not be viewed simplistically: ’it is not a motorway where everyone drives on sight, but a complex information-based entity that can only be operated with 21st century technology if track and operations are in the same hands ... if rail freight is to compete effectively against the lorry across Europe, modern vehicle and train control technology must be developed and applied. Splitting track and operations only delays the process and renders it more difficult, and in any case makes it more expensive.’

A similar view could be heard in November from the head of Austria’s rail regulation body, Schienen-Control GmbH. Gerhard Fuhrmann said separation would increase the cost of operations because of the need for more checks and controls and the difficulties of reaching agreement between different parties. He cited the example of Railtrack, where investment had fallen and maintenance had been drastically affected.

For some, the wreckage of the privatisation structure in Britain, where figures released in December show that delays to passenger services have soared since Railtrack was placed in administration on October 7, is enough to justify reintegration of track and trains. By mid-December senior figures in the industry were expressing concerns over safety and the morale of Railtrack staff. There was even talk of line closures because so many engineers were leaving that it would not be possible to monitor contractors adequately - although Railtrack said on December 14 that this would be ’exceptionally unlikely’.

When we suggested to European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Energy & Transport Loyola de Palacio on November 22 that separation did not work, she countered that ’there will be some who say the system is wrong, but it doesn’t mean so - other firms get into trouble. There is no obligation for anyone to privatise their infrastructure, or to separate totally. We are only asking for a functional separation.’

Given the extreme nature of the British privatisation experiment, the failure of the more cautious approach in the Netherlands, to which we alluded last September, is perhaps more instructive. It is clear that the Dutch split of operations and infrastructure has caused serious problems, and Netherlands Railways’ fall from paragon status is covered in detail in this issue (p39).

De Palacio reminded us why the Commission is desperate to introduce more competition into European rail freight, noting that ’freight trains in the USA average 50 to 55 km/h ... in Europe the average for international services is 16 to 17 km/h - not because the trains are slow, but because of all the border issues: crews, signalling, technical differences and documentation.’ The summit planned for March in Barcelona is ’the moment to give an impulse to liberalisation measures’, she suggested; ’we must show a real will to go on, to have a competitive economy.’ But she conceded that ’we are 15 member states, and there are some differences .. we make a great mistake if we don’t take account of member states’ sensibilities in these views.’ She promised a series of seminars in Luxembourg and Brussels to encourage the waverers ’to understand the picture and the realities’ of EU transport policy.