Time to shunt railway plans down right track, says EU

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Series Details Vol.7, No.23, 7.6.01, p20
Publication Date 07/06/2001
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Date: 07/06/01

By Renee Cordes

CENTRAL and Eastern European countries, like their western cousins, are striving to inject new life into railways.

Given increasing traffic congestion and the resulting damage to the environment, existing and future members of the EU have no choice but to re-direct passenger and freight traffic from roads back onto rails.

The current club of 15 member states may be off to a slow start, but it will soon get a push from the European Commission, which is promising to promote rail in its upcoming White Paper on common transport policy.

For the candidate countries, the journey to bring rail networks up to Union standards will be long and painful. And, as they do this, they will also have to build thousands of kilometres of highways to handle the extra traffic from increasing trade between east and west. "In eastern Europe there is a dire need for improving rail infrastructure," says Guy Hoedts, senior policy advisor at the Community of European Railways (CER).

Although many of these countries used rail quite heavily before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the past few years have seen a decline in service and standards.

In total, the applicant countries face a massive bill of at least €90 billion to bring all of their transport networks up to EU levels, according to the Commission's own Transport Infrastructure Needs Assessment (TINA).

The study, based on the results of two years of talks with the candidate countries, found that Poland's financial needs were greatest, because of its sheer size, with an estimated €36 billion required over the next 10 to 15 years. Romania, the poorest relative in the family of applicants, faces a total bill of more than €10 billion.

At the very least, these countries will need 18,353 kilometres of roads, 20,423 kilometres of railway lines, 38 airports, 13 seaports and 49 riverports.

These countries are also under increasing pressure to incorporate environmental and other costs into infrastructure charging.

So far, the EU has promised to spend more than €1 billion a year on transport and environment projects in the candidate countries between 2000-2006, through its Instrument for Structural Policies for Pre-accession (ISPA) programme.

Some of the money will go towards upgrading rail lines, such as the Budapest-Sznolnok-Romania route. Guy Hoedts of the CER says this is a step in the right direction, warning that it would be a mistake to rush into building new roads.

But not everyone is convinced that throwing money at rail is the best idea. Frazer Goodwin, a policy officer at the European Federation for Transport and Environment, argues that TINA has fallen well short of its goals. "It should be called the Transport Infrastructure Wish List," he says. "It had nothing to do with the actual needs of the countries and of the region, and everything to do with the demands and political priorities of vested interest groups."

He claims the Commission is wrong to promote rail over road. Still, he says it's not too late to take a different route.

Article forms part of a survey on enlargement.

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