Neglected railways need more inventiveness and less market

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October 21, 2008 13:10 | by Erik Meijer MEP

Long before the EU was founded, Europe had a wonderful international railway system, linking nearly all countries and their capitals by direct long distance trains and overnight connections, where necessary completed by ferry links. In addition to this system small cross border connections guaranteed direct links between regions in neighbouring countries in continental Europe. The entire system was possible on the basis of voluntary co-operation between national railway companies and an international company for sleeping cars. It was an example of successful bottom up European co-operation.

However, to-day at the European level there is less integration of railways. On the main lines national frequencies have been improved, but cross border links, night trains and long distance trains have been seriously reduced. Now the railways focus on frequent services in densely populated urban regions and the link between the biggest agglomerations, mainly inside one country. The main cross border exception is the high speed network from Brussels to London and Paris, which will soon be extended to Amsterdam, Cologne and Barcelona and later to Milan. The remaining parts of the traditional network, especially in scarcely populated rural regions, are in danger of being disused or neglected.

For many years politicians and governments persuaded the railway companies from different European countries no longer to consider themselves colleagues, but to feel themselves condemned to be in competition with their neighbours in an attempt to conquer their home markets. Since the introduction of computers some countries no longer take responsibility for the integration of trains coming from abroad into their home network. So the selling of international tickets has become more complicated. In the past you could buy hand written tickets to use far from home, but to-day you can buy only the limited selection that your home railway company has available in its computers. There is also a lack of information on international long distance services. The European Parliament (EP) failed to correct those shortcomings in its recent decisions on passengers' rights. Only expert linguists and geographers can rapidly and easily cross modern Europe by rail. Most others, aside from inventive people on their holidays, who are not in a hurry, are condemned to take an aeroplane, a bad choice from an environmental viewpoint.

The three railway packages which passed the EP between 2000 and 2007 ignore most of those problems. They are based primarily on the idea that railway companies can reduce their expenses by adopting the experiences of the free market in air and road transport, where demand is growing. Liberalisation and an obligation to select operators by tendering are the presumed means to promote growth and quality. First, European freight transport should be taken over by cross border operating companies, and later cross border passengers transport as well. To that aim some operating companies have been separated from the rail network, and they have to pay for using it, although the Swiss experience taught us that it is cheaper to integrate both. For the future we need less market and more use of practical experience and inventiveness.

Erik Meijer, ia a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands and transport spokesman for the United European Left/Nordic Green Left group(GUE/NGL). This article was first published in European Voice, 9 October 2008