28th May 2023

EU countries to accept new train rules

  • “We're talking about a very old industry. ... There is a natural resistance to change" (Photo: Gerry Balding)

European transport ministers are expected to agree on new rules for passenger railway services on Thursday (8 October), more than 2 and a half years after the European Commission proposed the rules.

Sources say they are optimistic that the ministers will rally behind a revised version of the Commission's legislation that allows more differences to continue to exist throughout the EU.

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  • "At no stage is anybody, ourselves included, advocating airport-style security", says EU Commission (Photo: Arjan Eising)

Ministers will also discuss whether to change rules concerning railway security, an issue that came to the fore after a foiled terrorist attack on a Thalys train in August.

But the main point on the agenda is the set of rules which aims to create a single European market for railway companies and liberalise the sector, as proposed by the Commission in January 2013.

However, national governments had been unable to reach consensus because of the differences between railway systems and varying degrees of liberalisation.

“We're talking about a very old industry”, said a source close to the presidency of the Council, which represents national governments.

“Over decades – more than a century in fact – procedures have grown, been put in place, structures have grown, been put in place, and all of them quite diverse. … Adapting them, changing them, is a massively difficult process and there is a natural resistance to change, unless change can be explained, justified, and so on.”

The solution to breaking the deadlock was to allow more differences between countries to continue, sources in the European Commission and the Council said.

“Compared to the original Commission proposal, I think we have been going into a direction of greater flexibility, allowing the different structures we have in Europe to coexist”, a Commission source said.

For example, the Commission had proposed to completely separate the companies that provide railway infrastructure (train stations, rails) and those that provide transport operations (the actual train travel). But several member states like France, Germany, and Italy opposed.

“I think we've come around [to] the conclusion that models can coexist if the rules of the game are sufficiently clear. … We've also come around with the realisation that different member states may need different degrees of flexibility. As long as the safeguards are there to ensure that the system works harmoniously we could be open to injecting flexibility”, the Commission contact added.

Luxembourg, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, came up with a compromise proposal which, according to the presidency source, “adjusted the balance slightly between harmonising everything and the present situation of disharmony”.

“We tried to take more into account existing situations and tried to make the proposal fit those, to the extent of course that it wasn't jeopardizing the main thrust of the proposal: the creation of a single market and a level playing field”, the presidency source said, adding that only rules that were "absolutely required" were kept.

Political will

The sources in the Commission, which since the plan was proposed has changed political leadership from Jose Manuel Barroso to Jean-Claude Juncker, said the changes do not harm the original goal of the plan.

“Of course, our original philosophy was to harmonise as much as possible. But in order to harmonise, you need to have the political will to do that”, the Commission source said.

“It is possible that you can get to the same objective through different paths, different ways. We thought that getting an agreement … was more important than winning an ideological battle as to how everyone should do their own thing”, she added.

She noted that while ministers may agree on Thursday, that is not yet the end. Following a common member states' position in the Council, the Commission will mediate negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament to reach a compromise between the compromises.

The proposed changes to the rules square with the increased desire that emerged from national capitals in recent years, to harmonise rules on an EU level only if there is no other way.

Railway security

Similarly, although many questions were asked regarding the possibility of new railway security rules after the above-mentioned thwarted attack on a train from Belgium to France, Commission sources do not expect to be granted sweeping EU-wide powers.

“All rules on rail security are set by member states nationally”, said a second Commission source. “We're not coming along blindly with a mandatory proposal for legislation.”

He said the Commission will put ideas on the table, such as whether to create action plans to require security training of train staff. It will also be discussed whether such ideas will be mandatory, recommendations, or purely discussed based on best practices.

“At no stage is anybody, ourselves included, advocating airport-style security”, he said.

The Commission is also expected to propose launching a study into airport security, which could be finished some time next year.

On Thursday, at the request of Germany, transport ministers will also discuss “real driving emissions tests”, following the Volkswagen scandal which involved illegal software that allowed the German car manufacturer to cheat on laboratory emissions test.

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