EU moves to end state rail monopolies

Berlin scrambles for allies to block liberalization plan

AFP-JIJI

In proposals likely to infuriate Germany, the EU executive will this month urge an end to Europe’s last rail monopolies and thus open the lucrative passenger market to competition from 2019.

The toughest opposition to the European Commission’s plan is likely to come from Germany and its rail giant, Deutsche Bahn. But France’s SNCF railways and Italy’s FS are also keenly awaiting a package of proposals.

The package is expected to be formally agreed upon and released by the EU executive by Jan. 23 or 30, with the aim of opening up the roughly €60 billion ($79.6 billion) market in annual passenger traffic by 2019.

But to do so, the Brussels-based executive is expected to call on the railways to be split between infrastructure management — the rails and network system — and actual train operations.

A controversial decision this week by Belgium’s Socialist-led government to follow this model was therefore welcomed by the commission in hopes it will prod others, including Italy and Poland, into following the same path. But the Belgian decision means the loss of an ally for Germany, which wants to maintain the structure of Deutsche Bahn. The German rail giant also runs track owner DB Netz.

Germany can still count on the support of Austria, which has 10 votes of the total 345 on the EU Council, as well as Luxembourg’s four votes, to add to its own 29. But it would need 90 in total to block the move. The Netherlands, with 13 votes, and the Czech Republic, with 12, meanwhile, are under pressure from their rail operators to return to the German single system, but even their support would likely still leave Germany short.

So France, with its 29 votes, could play a crucial role in the future of European rail. Officials in Brussels say Paris’ position remains ambiguous.

The new French Socialist government has said it plans to create a “single, unified infrastructure management entity” gathering together the current activities of RFF, SNCF Infra and DCF, the dispatching and traffic management authority. This new infrastructure entity would be complemented by legacy operator SNCF at the heart of a “publicly funded railway cluster compatible with European regulations.”

Experts in Brussels say this at first seems to resemble the German model, but the details are different.

So hopes are that France in the last instance will be influenced by Belgium. Transport Minister Paul Magnette said Belgium’s SNCB in the future will be the only operator in direct contact with passenger services, while Infrabel will be responsible for the development and maintenance of the tracks, as well as being in charge of the timetable.