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More competition to save the railways: MEPs launch discussions

The European Commission is proposing to open domestic rail passenger markets to competition by 2019 to complete the European railway market. Views differ amongst transport committee MEPs, with fears that unprofitable lines will be closed down.

The transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, presented the Fourth Railway Package to the transport and tourism committee on Tuesday. The six draft laws are intended to complete the "Single European Railway Area" by harmonising technical provisions and giving all operators access to national rail networks.

Mr Kallas said this last stage of liberalisation was vital in order to halt the decline of Europe's railways "unless we want rail transport to become a luxury toy for rich countries." He assured MEPs that the Commission's "pragmatic" approach would take account of regional conditions, existing company structures and "national prerogatives in defining public service obligations."

MEPs unanimously supported the Commission's plan to boost the role of the European Rail Agency in certifying rolling stock. This would make it possible to create a large rail network with common technical and safety standards. However, Dominique Riquet (EPP, FR) did ask "Where will the money come from?"

Financing: MEPs slam member states' hypocrisy

"We have all wanted more efficient railways for years but the member states are failing to transpose certain rules. As for the funding, I have serious doubts, given the new multi-annual budget framework," said Mathieu Grosch (EPP, BE).

Vilja Savisaar (ALDE, ET) wondered: "What incentive is the Commission providing in order to stimulate investment in infrastructure?" while Ramon Tramosa (ALDE, ES) called for more European money to fund the transeuropean core network. Faced with budget cuts, "I wonder what our true ambition is," said Karim Zéribi (Greens/EFA, FR), "if it is not liberalisation at any price."

Public service and railway staff

"Combining freedom of access to the market with public service contracts risks creating 'cherry picking', that is concentrating services on profitable lines," warned Said El Khadraoui (S&D, BE), "but for passengers, the only thing that counts is a reliable service, even on less heavily-used lines." Ayala Sender (S&D, ES) pointed to the "major challenge of finding an acceptable solution for railway workers."

Next steps

The discussions in Parliament will continue once the rapporteurs are appointed, with a public hearing to be held in May or June. The member states will debate the Commission's proposal on 11 March.

 

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