March 30, 2020
Written by David Burroughs
(The article was published in the International Railway Journal)
FIVE European rail associations have sent a joint letter to the European Commission (EC) calling for concrete measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
The eight page letter was addressed to EC executive vice president, Ms Margrethe Vestager, commissioner for transport, Ms Adina Vălean, and commissioner for cohesion and reforms, Ms Elisa Ferreira, and was signed by the heads of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), the International Union of Wagon Keepers (UIP), the International Union for Road-Rail Combined Transport (UIRR), and the Alliance of Passenger Rail New Entrants in Europe (AllRail).
“We are well aware that keeping European mobility and logistics operational is essential,” the letter says. “All European rail operators, infrastructure managers and other service providers are doing their best in order to respond to the critical mobility needs in these dire times.”
The letter says that despite border closures and a drop of up to 90% in passenger numbers in some countries, operators are continuing to provide services where possible to allow medical and other essential staff to commute to work. It adds that infrastructure managers are doing their best to enable all operators to deliver services, but will suffer if less services operate due to a reduction in the liquidity provided by track access charge revenues.
A massive effort is underway by European rail freight companies, combined transport and wagonload freight operators, wagon keepers, workshops and mobile services to maintain operations, the letter says. However, operational difficulties and a significant drop in the services between Europe and China will have a further negative impact on rail freight operators.
“The State aid Temporary Framework recently adopted by the EC is most welcome, and member states’ authorities should make the widest possible use of it,” the letter says. “We particularly appreciate the readiness of the EC to take action, something that enabled member states to already take initiatives under the framework.
“We hope that the member states will adhere to this requirement without exception and ensure that all companies in the railway sector will receive fair and adequate support vis‐à‐vis other transport modes.”
The associations say that operators providing services under public service obligation (PSO) contracts are also reducing their offers due to the Covid‐19 crisis, and called on member states to take measures aimed at covering the the losses of public service operators and at safeguarding the economic equilibrium of the contracts.
“We would welcome if the EC could explicitly confirm that member states may allocate necessary additional resources in the context of the PSO contracts without asking for the prior authorisation of the EC,” the associations say.
Aid schemes should be horizontal and sectorial, the letter says, and must include service providers associated within the transport sector, such as ticket vendors, catering companies, station managers and freight terminals, since they are immediately and directly affected by the withdrawal of traffic.
In the longer term, investment for rail infrastructure projects should be secured and further promoted, as they have a direct and positive effect on regional and national economies.
However, the pandemic has already severely affected current EU‐funded rail projects, with difficult financial and operational situations for contractors already translating into delays and sometimes even full stoppage of both construction as well as timely delivery of railway equipment or rolling stock.
The associations also called for train drivers and operating staff to be regarded as a strategic workforce, allowed to cross borders without unnecessary restrictions in order to pick up and deliver trains smoothly.
Increased support should be granted to infrastructure managers to ensure the network remains operational during these critical times, the associations say. This could be temporarily coupled with an ad hoc reduction of track access charges and energy charges for operators.
“Even in these difficult times, it must not be forgotten that the EU plans to achieve a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030,” the letter says. “It is critical that ‐ once the crisis is over ‐ the rail sector is able to mobilise again quickly and offer the same levels of service as before the crisis. In order for the Green Deal to be a success, there is an urgent need now to safeguard all rail services that were taking place before the crisis.”