MEPs and Council progress on rail reform
By Isabelle Smets | Thursday 31 May 2012
The reform of EU rail legislation has taken a step forward with the adoption of a second-reading report by Debora Serrachiani (S&D, Italy) in the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport (TRAN), on 31 May. The report, which contains a number of compromises already concluded with the Council of Ministers, was adopted with a comfortable majority of 35 votes in favour, six against and one abstention. Discussions will continue before the plenary session; negotiations with the Danish Presidency were due to take place a few hours after the vote, and a last session of three-way talks is scheduled for 13 June. It is therefore likely that a second-reading agreement will be reached without recourse to the conciliation process.
The EU railway reform package is politically sensitive, since it touches on the organisation of railways, as well as their funding. While it does not contain any new obligations on the liberalisation of services - for national passenger transport, this is due at the end of 2012 - it aims to ensure that all conditions are met so that access to existing services is guaranteed in a truly non-discriminatory manner. Specifically, this is achieved through requirements on the independence of infrastructure managers and of surveillance organisms, which should safeguard effective competition on railway networks within member states.
According to the report, the essential role of infrastructure managers - who should be completely independent from transport companies in order to guarantee fair competition - includes the distribution and allocation of rail paths, as well as decisions on fees for access to networks and investment in infrastructure. The report establishes new obligations on non-discriminatory access to a number of services and infrastructures, such as goods terminals, marshalling yards and sidings. When these infrastructures are used by historic railway companies or by companies linked to them - which is currently a common scenario and can lead to conflicts of interest - independence should be guaranteed on organisation and decisions (although total legal separation between the two is not required). The report states that if one of these structures has not been used during a period of at least two years, it should be made available for rental or leasing. This is a compromise; the original point of departure for the Parliament was one year, while for the Council it was three years.
The committee also voted on a compromise between the Council and Parliament on the establishment of a network of national control bodies, which would allow for a more uniform interpretation of EU legislation. In the longer term, Parliament’s report does not abandon the idea of a European regulator, who would be responsible for the surveillance and arbitration of cross-border problems - but this point is still not agreed with the Council.
To ensure the planning of investment in infrastructure, the report recommends that member states and infrastructure managers should be bound by multiannual contracts of a minimum duration of five years; this is also the result of a compromise between the Council (which initially proposed three years) and Parliament (which proposed seven years at first reading). The balance is leaning more to the side of the Council, since MEPs have agreed, as called for by the Council, that these contracts should not prejudice the principle of annual financing, which is applied in the majority of member states.
Parliament’s report also foresees - and this is an agreement with the Council - that fees for access to infrastructure could be modified in a way that would encourage operators to use less noisy trains and to use the ETCS (European Train Control System, a component of the European Rail Traffic Management System - ERTMS).