Too slow, too heavy, too inflexible:
the railways seem locked into the rigidities of a bygone age. The
European network - such as it is - remains a juxtaposition of 15
separate systems operating within essentially national networks,
involving a huge loss of time in recoupling carriages, switching
locomotives and replacing crews every time a train crosses a border.
The net result of these repeated stops en route is an average speed
of 18 km/hr for international freight transport, which is slower
than an ice-breaker clearing a passage through the Baltic Sea in
winter! Just 8.4% of the EU's freight is carried by rail, compared
with 21.1% in the 1970s, while road transport has increased its
share from 51% to 72%.
Obsolescence and deficient infrastructures have
caused countless bottlenecks in many countries at the expense of
the competitiveness of a rail network that is often unable to meet
the growing demand for passenger and freight transport. Despite
the development of high-speed trains, passenger transport is stagnating.
Today the railways meet just 6% of passenger mobility needs globally.
The cost of improving infrastructures is considerable:
4 and 9 billion respectively a year over ten years in Italy and
the United Kingdom. In Germany, the Deutsche Bahn invests 8 billion
a year in its network, making it the world's biggest rail investor,
compared with 3 billion a year for the SNCF/State partnership in
Environment and harmonisation
public authorities have high hopes for the railways that could play
a key role in achieving a new balance between modes of transport
which is vital to unclogging the roads and reducing pollution. As
the Commission explains in its White Paper on transport policy,
environmental concerns are central to the debate. In Europe, 28%
of carbon dioxide emissions come from transport and the roads alone
account for 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
To revitalise rail and guarantee its competitiveness,
Europe is working on an ambitious plan to 'revolutionise' this mode
of transport. The aim is to create an integrated European rail area.
To do so will mean overcoming the fundamental obstacle of the lack
of interoperability between national rail networks and systems.
Everything changes from one country to the next: the electrification
and signalling, working conditions, driving and safety regulations
... and even, in some cases, the width of the track.
But harmonisation is coming. After four years
of intense activity, the technical specifications for the interoperability
of the high-speed rail network will soon enter into force. Technical
studies have also been launched for conventional rail transport
and a directive is presently under discussion to complete the fundamental
principles of interoperability and to develop a common approach
to safety. The latter is part of the second package proposed by
the Commission in January to accelerate the opening up of rail markets.
A single and competitive network
initial agreement of crucial importance has already been reached
to open up freight transport to competition, first of all - from
March 2003 - on a trans-European rail freight network, and
then on all lines in 2008. The Union wants to speed up the process
and also open up the national rail freight market by 2006. European
legislation will thus enable accredited operators to use the rail
networks of all Member States for freight transport, under the supervision
of an independent body, the European agency for rail safety and
interoperability. Propositions will also be formulated to open up
the passenger transport market progressively, starting with certain
niche markets - night trains, auto trains, etc. - before being extended
to all services.
projects for the future
To help draw up Europe's new rail
transport map, the Commission has decided to grant some
2.78 billion to 14 priority infrastructure projects
for transport by the year 2006, almost two-thirds of
them for rail. Major works include building rail links
through the Alps and Pyrenees and more high-speed links
for passengers. Six projects will tackle bottlenecks
and network congestion. The total investment is in the
region of 66 billion, funded by the public and private
sector at national, regional and Community level.
What is the real cost of transport?
This must of course take into account the specific external
costs of each mode of transport. It is estimated that
every time 85 tonne-kilometres (tkm) of freight switches
from road to rail, the external costs are reduced by
50%. On average, the external costs of rail transport
are 12.35 per 1 000 tkm compared with 24.12 for road.
to magnify the table