28th May 2023

The future of Europe's rail sector is not on track: 'we need people'

  • In the next ten years, 45 per cent of train drivers in Europe will retire. (Photo: Unsplash)
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In the next ten years, 45 percent of train drivers in Europe will retire.

The situation is not unique to the rail sector. In the road sector,three out of ten drivers will retire within three years, with four to seven times fewer younger drivers to take their place.

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"We need people," stressed Livia Spera, general secretary of the European Workers' Transport Federation (ETF), at a conference held at its headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday (26 April). "Working conditions need to improve and the attractiveness of the railway sector is absolutely crucial".

To discuss the challenges facing the sector, the association, which represents five million workers, brought together MEPs, drivers, social partners and the European Commission's director for land transport, Kristian Schmidt.

"We all agree that the current directive is not fit for purpose," he said.

The Commission is currently drawing up its proposal for a revision of the Train Drivers Directive, the regulation that sets common minimum requirements for the certification, training, and competence of train drivers.

There is no draft text on the table yet, so Schmidt could not reveal any concrete policy or measures.

What the Commission's land transport director did reveal, was that the review's priority will be to tackle the operational inefficiencies that make this mode of transport more costly.

According to a European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) analysis of cross-border rail system potential, technical, administrative and legal barriers are the main obstacles to reducing journey times and thus making rail transport more competitive.

A driver in the room from Strasbourg illustrated the problem well: his journey through Switzerland was delayed by up to two hours because of a problem with document transmission.

ERA analyst Torben Holvad also pointed to language as an obstacle.

For trade unions and workers, the main concern is that the Commission proposes to lower the minimum language level (set at intermediate level B1), to require English as a common language or to use automatic translation tools.

"The introduction of English [and retraining] would entail significant costs and reduce competitiveness," commented Alberto Mazzola, director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER).

For another driver at the conference, changes in this area would put people's safety at risk. "If we reduce it [the language requirement], we will actually reduce safety," he said.

During the three and a half hours of contributions, you could almost see the boomerang going from one side of the room to the other, but always back to the Commission.

Schmidt, whom the ETF secretary general did not refer to as a "friend" when introducing the panel (as she did to the invited MEPs), stressed several times that language was not the main purpose of this review.

The Commission is not 'obsessed' with the language requirement, he even claimed.

The social partners, trade unions and workers are concerned that the situation in the road transport sector will be repeated in the rail transport sector.

They want to avoid 'social dumping', where companies hire workers from third countries, pay them below the minimum wage and do not respect their labour rights.

This situation is now seen in Germany, where workers from Uzbekistan and Georgia have been protesting for months against poor working conditions and unpaid wages.

For the ETF and CER, the issue is clear: harmonisation of procedures, yes. Change of language requirements, no.

Digital licence, yes. Single licence for all certifications (regardless of whether they are national, European or company-specific) and valid for all companies, no.

"Driving licences and complementary certificates shall not be merged because of their differences, as they cover different requirements and professional knowledge and cannot be harmonised to a full extent at European level," reads a statement from both organisations.


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