What does the future hold for the European railway transportation industry? Brian Simpson MEP, Chairman of the Transport and Tourism Committee in the European Parliament, gives his views
By inclination I am more of an optimist than a pessimist. A glass is half full, not half empty, but when it comes to railways in Europe, optimism is often ground out of me by the inability of the railway industry to invest, to compete against other modes, to deliver for customers. They have perfected the art of nine reasons why you cannot do something rather than one reason why you can; and in the areas of freight, have over many years adopted a “Neroesque” attitude of oblivious fiddling whilst Rome burns!
So, do I support rail liberalisation? Yes I do! Do I think it is needed? Yes I do and I don’t mean a liberalisation process that merely changes company names and keeps the same old restrictive practices, nor do I think that the answer lies in wholesale privatisation of the network. After all, the Conservatives tried that in Britain and in infrastructure terms it was a disaster, and in passenger terms it has given us too many train operators on franchises that are too short. So what in my opinion does need to happen?
A European perspective
Let me do this in two sections: passenger and freight, and take a European perspective rather than a national one, a distinctly bad habit that always happens when discussing railways. If you look around the European rail network you need a diverse industry ranging from high-speed passenger networks to decrepit freight routes and from high-tech units to Soviet era diesels. But even within those areas where it is accepted that high-speed routes have attracted additional passengers, when you look behind the facade, you find urban, suburban and rural lines suffering from a lack of investment and a lack of modern rolling stock.
It would appear that in those countries that have embraced the high speed concept this has been done at the expense of local services and whilst this concept has undoubtedly delivered improved inter-city services, capacity constrains and lack of investment in local units had adversely affected other services. Sadly the further east you go in the EU the worse the rail network becomes, leaving us not with a high-speed network, but a two-speed network. There are parts of the European Union where the railway network is a disgrace and is technologically entering the 20th century when we are now approaching 10 years of the 21st, which nicely brings me to freight.
The importance of liberalisation
Here I pose a number of questions. Why can’t we run a freight train from Manchester to Milan in less than 24 hours? Why do national authorities place restrictions on freight trains coming over from other countries? Why do we have so many different charging regimes? Why do we have different signalling, power supply and driving regulations? Why can’t we have an inter-operable system that allows national borders to disappear and allows rail to compete with the very inter-operable road lorry? Why is rail freight so expensive?
It is the old systems that have delivered the rail network (and indeed the die-hard attitudes against change) that we had in the past and in many countries what we still have today. That is why the liberalisation process is important in that it not only opens up market access but it breaks down the age old attitudes that for the last 20 years has held back the European rail industry. It breaks that monopolistic national attitudes and it offers choice to both passengers and freight users. Surely that has to be a good thing, not just for users but the railways as a whole.
I do, however, appreciate that changing the way railways work throughout 25 Member States cannot be done overnight. I firmly believe that the pace of change has been painfully slow and needs to be speeded up as a matter of urgency. Initially the European Parliament adopted a phased approach to liberalisation starting with freight services, then international passenger, and then national passenger services. However, whilst the Parliament discusses the third railway package, it is with great disappointment and a huge amount of frustration that we find a majority of Member States have failed to implement the first. Not untypical of national governments, they agree to do something whilst in discussion with Parliament and Commission, and then fail to act. Frankly, that’s not only dishonest, but it is also damaging Europe’s railway industry and amounts in my mind to maladministration and a dereliction of duty.
There is no doubt that the European Parliament is determined to carry on the liberalisation process. It is determined to see a transparent separation between operator and infrastructure provider. It is committed to bringing down national barriers that are acting as a brake on future development, and last but not least, it is determined to deliver inter-operability on the rail network.
So what does the future hold for rail? The answer lies within the industry itself and whether operators have the courage to be innovative, the courage to work together across modes, the courage to bring down national barriers and national protectionism and the courage to invest in the sector at this time of economic belt-tightening. Who dares wins is the motto of a famous British Army Regiment. I think it has great relevance for the wider European railway transportation industry in the near future and will determine whether rail can rise to the challenge and deliver for its customers. The challenges are great and progress needs to be made for no progress will sound a resounding death knell especially for the European rail freight industry in particular. Cooperation between modes could be an answer but the onus on change lies with the wider rail industry. They have to step up to the mark and deliver, something they have failed to do, especially in rail freight up to now.
At the moment, support is strong for our railways. The environmental aspects weigh heavily in rails’ favour but we need the industry to act. We need them and their national governments to grasp the nettle that is liberalisation and give us a world-class railway, a railway without barriers throughout the whole of the European Union. Remember, he who dares wins and also keep in mind “can do” not “can’t do”.