Open up operators’ rail access, Member States told

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.24, 14.6.01, p16
Publication Date 14/06/2001
Content Type

Date: 14/06/01


TRANSPORT Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is increasing the pressure on Union governments to liberalise operators' access to rail infrastructure.

In a statement to a meeting of rail supply industry bosses in Naples last week, de Palacio also hinted at plans by the EU executive to come down heavily on countries which fail to ensure fair network competition from 2003.

The Commission vice-president urged governments to push ahead with setting up independent authorities to monitor network access, under a directive adopted earlier this year. But she also warned that the national bodies would be answerable to the EU. "Their creation will not detract from the Commission's powers... in competition matters," she said. "The Commission intends to play a key role and make vigilant use of European competition law in the rail sector."

The Commissioner's call for rapid liberalisation, delivered by Fernando de Esteban, deputy director-general for transport, was echoed by train operators' representatives at the annual conference of the Union of European Railway Industries (UNIFE).

Michel Quidort, communications director for French train operator Connex, criticised his government's failure to open up markets, which he said had limited his firm's expansion.

He said France's reluctance to liberalise was often used as an argument against Connex bids for foreign contracts. He also urged the Commission to take a firm line against protected state-owned operators. "A company with a monopoly in its own country should only be allowed to invest [abroad] if the market in its home country is also opened," he said.

The issue is sensitive for France, where thousands of workers took to the streets last October in demonstrations organised by the powerful rail unions against proposals - since adopted as directives - to liberalise freight across the EU.

Draft measures on the liberalisation of passenger services are expected to follow later this year.

The freight rules will free up 50,000 km of the busiest networks in 2003, with the remainder to be opened up from 2008.

Under the legislation, governments will also have to separate the service providers from the infrastructure managers who allocate network access; both functions are currently under the control of a single state-owned rail company in several Union countries. But Commission insiders say the EU executive is keen to avoid reproducing the kind of tensions between member states caused by the uneven pace of liberalisation in the energy sector. State-owned Electricité de France (EdF) has angered both Spain and Italy by acquiring stakes in their recently-privatised utilities. "This is exactly what's being discussed now," said one Commission official. "For example, SNCF [the French state-owned rail operator] could keep control on the use of infrastructure and buy into another company in another country. It could be the same situation as with EdF."

Under the 'reciprocity' principle written into the EU Treaty, member states cannot be forced to grant market access to countries which keep their sectors closed to competition.

Critics of the Union executive's handling of energy liberalisation say it has not been sufficiently active in its upholding of the principle.

But de Palacio may be planning to keep a tighter rein on rail liberalisation.

As her number-two transport official points out, the rail infrastructure directive forbids companies which control rail infrastructure to run services. "If that happens," said de Esteban, "we have all the necessary legal instruments to put a stop to it. We will not hesitate to defend the principle of reciprocity."

Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is increasing the pressure on Union governments to liberalise operators' access to rail infrastructure.

Subject Categories