EU rail reform could boost jobs and economic growth

Experience shows that privatising our railways is not the answer to increasing passenger numbers, warns Lucy Anderson.

Comparisons between the different modes of transport are striking. According to the latest EU-wide figures, 72.3 per cent of passenger km were travelled by car, but only 6.6 per cent by train.

Rail has a consistently low level of passenger transport overall, yet in most cases it is more sustainable than road or air. This is something Parliament would like the Commission’s proposals to address.

The European Parliament’s recent resolution on the mid-term review of the 2011 transport white paper points out that shifting the balance between modes of travel is not an end in itself. Rather, it is necessary in order to address carbon emission reduction targets, among other vital public policy goals.

In the coming months, we will face major decisions on the final shape of the fourth rail package, including its controversial ‘political pillar’. This consists of the draft public services obligation regulation and draft governance directive.

In summary, these measures aim to insist upon compulsory tendering for passenger services as the default in the longer term. They are also meant to facilitate competition by private operators on routes, cross-border or not.

The proposals take market liberalisation in the rail sector much further than existing EU legislation. They attempt to remove the possibility for national services to be run by a state operator without private sector competition – even where neither that operator nor any subsidiaries are seeking to compete for rail contracts in other member states.

No one has explained why this approach is necessary to enable more people to travel on trains rather than in cars or by air.

The initial Commission impact assessment of the proposals did not provide convincing evidence of why increased market liberalisation would boost the modal share of rail transport compared with other factors, such as public investment in key networks and interchanges, or subsidised fare policies.

Some have used the UK as a good example of the way forward on rail policy for the EU as a whole.

But while UK rail passenger journeys have more than doubled since privatisation in the mid-1990s, this remains a very small percentage of total travel. For example, statistics for England in 2013 show that for personal travel, three per cent of passengers travel by train, but 64 per cent opt for car or van transport.

At the same time, average fares for passengers have vastly increased, and railways are slower and more overcrowded than those in many other member states.

It is not too late for the Parliament to address these concerns with appropriate amendments. The stakes are high. We have the potential to help create a genuinely pro-people EU railway area with high standards of safety and compatibility across borders, and supporting quality jobs and economic growth. So let’s take the necessary time and get it right.

About the author
Lucy Anderson (S&D, UK) is a member of Parliament’s transport and tourism committee