Single railway area key to EU economic prosperity

Improving Europe’s railway systems would lead to substantial economic and environmental benefits, argues Izaskun Bilbao Barandica.

The European economy’s competitiveness is hindered by the saturation of its transport networks. Each year, problems such as congestion, delays and inefficiencies cost us one per cent of our gross domestic product. When a product is finished in Europe, between 10 and 15 per cent of its price can be traced back to logistics, storage and transport. The sustainability of services is also heavily compromised by their dependence on fossil fuels.

In order to resolve these problems, Europe needs to turn its transport system into a global benchmark. The EU has drawn up a strategic plan for transport aimed at tackling the issues mentioned above. One key aspect of this approach is improving rail transport.

Looking at environmental concerns, energy, speed and safety, it is clear that rail could hugely benefit the European economy. However, within the EU, rail is actually the most fragmented means of transport and the most difficult to operate without disruption.

The fourth railway package must tackle the challenge of solving these problems. In technical and political terms, this package is essential in order to complete efforts in building infrastructures recorded in the directive on trans-European transport networks and its funding mechanism, the connecting Europe facility.

Member states are reluctant to honour their commitments and deal with state monopolies. This is slowing down the much-needed transition from the ‘mosaic’ that is rail transport in Europe, towards a borderless network. It is a necessary step that will enable us to turn train and rail into a true alternative to long-distance road transport.

Furthermore, rail has potential like no other mode of transport, and the best energy efficiency ratio per tonne transported. Our global competitors are making investment in rail transport a basic part of their strategies in 2014.

In Europe, discussions on the fourth railway package came about because we were unable to complete the third railway package. In addition, fragmentation prevents us from gaining adequate return on investments made in rail infrastructure projects. This also means fewer opportunities for entrepreneurs, who under different circumstances might consider operating in the rail transport market.

Each year, in Europe, eight billion journeys are made by train. Without the obstacles I have outlined, this amount could soon be multiplied. The 10 per cent of goods transported by rail freight could rapidly be increased to the 50 per cent that should be in place by 2050. If we achieve these figures, by the second half of this century, we will also reduce CO2 emissions by 60 per cent compared to levels recorded in 1990.

The solution is in our hands. As part of the attempt to establish a single railway area, the interoperability report for which I am the rapporteur aims to simplify the 11,000 national technical regulations detailing the operational procedures for railway networks. These regulations also give rise to permits issued by over 20 state agencies, which are very diverse in terms of structure, resources and staff training. They are applied in an arbitrary manner.

The certification and circulation of rolling stock is also difficult. Nowadays, administrative fees account for 10 per cent of the costs of designing a locomotive and 30 per cent of the cost of bringing it onto the market. We want to bring these costs down. We also want to reduce the time it takes for a new company to enter the market by 20 per cent. The €500m therefore freed up over the next five years would reinforce the leading position of the European railway industry in global markets and greatly improve the services and opportunities for transnational interoperability of railways.

We also want the European railway agency (ERA) to issue ‘European vehicle passports’ to certify the ‘placing on the market’ of vehicles, while the ‘bringing into service’ would be the responsibility of the operators. Furthermore, we will propose greater transparency and simplified governance for the organisation.

We will strengthen its role in terms of supervision and revision of national regulations, in order to avoid redundancies or contradictions between them, and suggesting derogations where appropriate. In short, the aim is to consolidate procedures which take into account both trains and rolling stock into a single operation, and to extend these facilities to the certification of fixed equipment.

The key lies in the connections that we are able to build between the ERA and national agencies. These national agencies are full of knowledge on the sector as well as professionals with vast expertise and experience. Obviously, the aim here is not to duplicate structures. Instead, we suggest creating operational arrangements that make use of those already in place and revitalise them.

This way, we would be putting them at the service of the common area, enabling us to turn rail transport into a source of competitiveness and employment. In this sense, we believe it is necessary to incorporate all the research and innovation obtained from the SIF two rail programme.

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