The Single Market in railways is an important part of why it is so essential for the UK to remain a full member of the European Union. It is not only that we have a good railway system in the UK which comes near the top of the European Commission’s regular survey of passenger opinion, but where rail passenger and freight traffic has grow by some 60% since privatisation (I am chairman of the Rail Freight Group). Equally important, our railway supply industry and train operators want to do more business exporting to or operating in other member states, and we have a lot to offer.
Unfortunately, many member states’ railways are almost closed to companies from other states or retain effective monopolies to preserve their own incumbent operator. Some of this is blatant (French rail operator SNCF has stated that its proposed rail reform is designed to keep out competition and Germans in particular); in Germany, the European Commission has for some time sought infraction proceedings against anti-competitive or illegal practices which disadvantage other operators, and only last week the German Competition Authority (Bundeskartelampt) announced an investigation about why independent passenger operators are prevented from selling tickets through DB station outlets.
It is a sad reflection that there are few other independent operators which have not over the years been bought up by incumbents. Some do well, but there is a serious lack of competition in the sector which, coupled with structures which allow vertical integration (one owner of the track and train operation) competition becomes sometimes very unfair and difficult; not the kind of a situation that encourages private investment and growth.
Thus, the European Commission’s Fourth Railways Package is designed to bring liberalisation and the single market to the rail sector; perhaps, unsurprisingly, parts of it are opposed by several member states, led by Germany and France, but the European Parliament Transport and Tourism Committee (TRAN), after some lengthy debates, did approve this package of measures to go forward to a vote in Plenary session in late February or early March to make some progress before parliament closes for elections in May.
Some 18 independent passenger and freight operators from across Europe, as well as customers and associations, have signed a letter (attached) on 1 February urging all MEPs to support the version of the 4th Railway Package as voted by a good majority in TRAN on 17 December.
It is also important that the UK government, on whose rail structure much of the EU legislation is based, fully supports the 4th Railway Package in the Council. Of course, it should take a lead in support of UK companies, but often appears hesitant; perhaps this is part of the Conservative party’s attempt to disengage with ‘Europe’. Whatever the reason, it does not serve UK business well.