Liberalisation arrives – in theory

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All rail freight services in Europe were opened up to competition from 1 January.

Jacques Barrot, the European Commission vice-president with responsibility for transport, said: “Competition among freight operators will make it possible to stimulate the sector and contribute to the achievement of an integrated European rail area. I would like the railways, a safe and environmentally friendly mode of transport, to play a major role in the European logistical chain.”

As of 1 January, all freight lines were be opened up to competition. Up until then, in the member states which have followed the EU timetable, only international freight services, which represent approximately half of the total market for the transport of goods by rail in Europe, were liberalised.

Thanks to this new stage in the process, the EU hopes that rail freight will attract new investors and new customers by offering a quality service adapted to the needs of the market and that, overall, the railways will steadily increase their market shares in a lasting way.

The EU says that the share of the carriage of goods by road grew steadily from 1970 to 2003, to the detriment of the railways. As a result, from 20 per cent in 1970, the market share of the railways in the 15 Member States fell to less than eight per cent in 2003, and the sector shed one million jobs over the same period. However, rail freight, which has the advantages of being safe and environmentally friendly, remains essential to the proper functioning of the European economy and should occupy an important place within the logistical system of the Union, the EU believes.

To reverse the decline in rail freight, the European Union has initiated a policy based in particular on support for investment in rail infrastructure accompanied by a policy aimed at the gradual opening-up of the rail freight market and the development of inter-operability. The objective is twofold: to promote rail freight and create an integrated European rail area.

Tony Berkeley of the Rail Freight Group points out that in theory the complete European network is now available to open access. “In practice, the situation is very different across member states; there are a myriad of rules and working practices. The Rail Freight Group will work with those European groups who believe in liberalisation to press the European Commission and member states governments to act, quickly and decisively, to put into practice what they have already established in law.”

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