The European Commission has set out an action plan designed to boost long distance and cross-border passenger rail services

EUROPE: The European Commission has set out an action plan designed to boost long distance and cross-border passenger rail services, with the aim of doubling high speed rail traffic and making scheduled public transport trips under 500 km carbon neutral by 2030, and tripling high speed rail traffic by 2050.

The action plans focuses on two main pillars: full implementation of the existing EU regulatory framework, including the removal of any redundant national rules, and removal of obstacles to long distance and cross-border passenger services.

Amongst the measures in the action plan are:

  • revision of the TEN-T regulation to improve the passenger rail network and ensure it is better integrated within the multimodal transport system;
  • revision of Technical Specifications for Interoperability, including for ‘go-everywhere’ passenger rolling stock (2022), to include improved processes for implementing new technologies and paving the way to the introduction of automated train operation, 5G communications, and potentially satellite-based services;
  • a revised regulatory framework for train drivers (2022);
  • programmes to ensure that future skills needs are met, including an increase in apprenticeships;
  • regulatory action to improve capacity allocation and traffic management processes (2022), and giving consideration to an EU-level entity overseeing the optimisation of cross-border rail traffic;
  • guidelines for setting track access charges which support long distance and cross-border passenger services (2023);
  • consideration of exempting the public financing of track access charge reductions from the notification obligation under state aid rules;
  • proposing a regulation to be adopted by the end of 2022 on multimodal digital services to enhance data exchange between transport providers and facilitate the conclusion of fair commercial agreements with third-party ticket sellers, including protection in case of missed connections for passengers travelling on combined separate tickets;
  • monitoring compliance with the Rail Passenger Rights Regulation once it becomes applicable in June 2023;
  • assessing the need for an EU-wide VAT exemption for international train services;
  • promoting air-rail multimodal journeys on routes where the suitable infrastructure is in place, and assessing regulatory options to facilitate such multimodal services;
  • publishing interpretative guidelines for applying the Land PSO Regulation including to long-distance and cross-border rail passenger services (2022);
  • a proposal to amend Erasmus reimbursement rules to promote the use of sustainable transport;
  • ensuring sufficient availability of rolling stock.

Announcing the action plan on December 14, the European Commission said the full implementation of the existing regulatory framework under the four railway packages is a key requirement, and it would continue to work towards implementing the Single European Rail Area and opening the market for new players and services.

The commission believes that the measures in the action plan need to be implemented as a matter of urgency, and it plans to support cross-border pilot schemes to test the implementation of the concepts. These could involve quicker city-to-city connections, making use of new approaches such as integrated timetabling, support for rolling stock, or PSO contracts for cross-border connections.

‘Rail is one of the most sustainable modes of transport we have. And yet, this potential risks going to waste — cross-border trips account for just 7% of the kilometres travelled by train’, said EU Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean.

‘This action plan will help us make rail a more attractive option for long-distance and cross-border journeys. We have identified the main barriers, from redundant national rules to complicated ticketing and the slow uptake of digital technologies. Today we are setting out how to take down these barriers, with passengers being the real winners.’

‘Urgent change is necessary’

Responding to the announcement, the AllRail association of independent passenger operators said ‘it is clear that the European Commission understands that urgent change is necessary’ to increase rail’s market share.

AllRail called for transparent impartial ticket sales, with all operators’ services bookable though both incumbent and third-party channels, as well as missed connection protection. AllRail said these are political rather than technical matters, and called for implementation by 2024

‘Rail operators should compete in terms of better fares and onboard product, and not who inherited dominant control of the downstream sales market or who offers exclusive missed connection protection’, said AllRail President Dr Erich Forster. ‘All ticket sellers should receive the same data on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory commercial terms and compete for the benefit of passengers.’

AllRail also called on the commission to ensure that independent operators are part of the cross-border pilot schemes. It said PSO contacts should only be used in exceptional circumstances and should not become institutionalised, as even temporary contracts would ‘hibernate’ market opening until the late 2020s.