How to improve the quality of rail transport services, increase passenger choice, make public investment more efficient and, at the same time, preserve and boost employment in service and manufacturing companies, whilst ensuring the flexibility necessary to meet the needs of local communities were the challenges discussed at the Round Table on the 4th Railway Package held at the meeting of the Commission on Territorial Cohesion Policy of the Committee of the Regions (COTER) on 26 February.
"We will evaluate the options available in a spirit of pragmatism and contribute to reforming EU railway transport so that the highest safety standards, adequate services for citizens and better market conditions for regional and local authorities in charge of awarding local transport contracts are ensured," declared CoR rapporteur Pascal Mangin (FR/EPP), Member of the Alsace Regional Council, who chaired the debate. Jean-Eric Paquet, from the European Commission's DG MOVE, outlined the core aspects of the legislative proposals, which were adopted by the executive on 30 January. The set of technical provisions aimed at ensuring rail interoperability and safety garnered wide consensus amongst CoR members and stakeholders' representatives. The idea of an enhanced role for the European Railway Agency (ERA) in safety certification and issuing individual vehicle authorisation gained support from most speakers, as it was considered a means to avoid overlaps and non-transparent national rules.
A certification procedure which is faster, cheaper and better coordinated is key to lower market entry costs for all operators. Governance of the railway system, most specifically, the idea of a mandatory separation between infrastructure managers and transport service providers, the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering for public service contracts and of a clear cut-off date for existing directly-awarded contracts were the most debated aspects of the Commission proposals. Here, Mr Paquet pointed out that the proposal does not impose one single model of governance but instead introduces clear rules to remove discrimination and conflicts of interest within the different models adopted by Member States in line with their needs. The new rules should also improve value for money through competition, make industry more responsive to customer needs and create the conditions to attract a skilled labour force.
Georges Bach (LU/EPP), member of the European Parliament committee on transport and tourism, insisted on the need to speed up approval of technical provisions which would simplify a legal framework currently made up of 11 000 different rules. He also argued for more attention to be paid to social issues in railway transport. With regard to the most controversial issues in the governance and awarding of public service contracts, Mr Bach suggested that more time was needed to find the right solutions.
The urgent need to harmonise and improve the integration of European railway systems was underlined by Bernard Soulage (FR/PES), COTER member and Vice-President of Rhône-Alpes Regional Council. He also stressed the need to ensure equal treatment for all operators but, nevertheless refused the idea of imposing the same governance model on all Member States. CoR rapporteur, Mr. Mangin, concluded the debate by stressing the crucial role of railway transport in supporting territorial cohesion. Regions and cities will therefore clarify their position on the key aspects of the Commission's proposal, such as the provision concerning Public Service Obligations (PSO), which will undergo the most important changes for local and regional authorities (financing, competition, protection of existing contracts etc.); market access and the separation between infrastructure and operations, market access in urban and suburban networks; interoperability, especially in relation to local transport; and safety.
The draft opinion is expected to be adopted by COTER in May, with a final adoption scheduled for the plenary session on 3rd July.