Now official: track access charges may be waived during pandemic

Member States of the European Union may waive or reduce track access charges to support railway undertakings during the pandemic. The European Parliament voted in favor of this new regulation earlier today. Railway companies are facing challenging times due to declining volumes, and the call for support has been echoing in Brussels for months.

With the vote in favour, the support measure is now European Regulation. This allows Member States to waive track access charges and mark-ups applicable to freight trains, as well as waive reservation fees that apply to cancelled freight train paths. For the time being, this applies until the end of the year and retroactively from 1 March. However, the European Commission may extend the validity of the Regulation in case the pandemic continues disrupting the rail freight market.

Which member states?

The first to make use of the possibility to waive track access charges is France. End of August, the French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that France will waive track access charges for the remainder of 2020 and cut them in half for all of 2021, if Regulation allowing this would be in place.

Similarly, the Austrian government wants to support rail freight operators with a discount on the user charges for the rail infrastructure. It made this announcement on 8 August. These measures are expected to be implemented this autumn. Belgium is considering similar measures. In June, the Belgian Rail Freight Forum asked its government for short-term support of this kind to get the sector through the crisis.

Why needed

Rail freight volumes have significantly decreased this year, with around 30 per cent. It is currently unclear when these volumes will rise again. Especially smaller and private carriers are facing challenges to continue operations. In the short term, the wavier or reduction of track access charges is considered a suitable solution, to ensure that the crisis does not lead to systematic damage.

Interest groups have repeatedly called for such a proposal since the onset of the crisis. In June, the European Commission came with an official proposal towards this end. Just a few months earlier, this was considered a radical measure. In April, the European Commission announced that DG MOVE and DG Competition were working to make possible a decrease of rail infrastructure charges and other charges in service facilities (such as parking charges) within the state aid framework. A complete waiver was not yet on the agenda.

Repsonse

“ERFA strongly believes a waiver or reduction of track access charges is the most appropriate mechanism by which Members States can support the entire industry, as such measures benefit all operators equally. Member States now have an important tool by which to support the rail freight sector and ERFA calls for all Member States to act proactively in implementing the provisions of this Regulation”, the European lobby group said in response today.

Combined transport group UIRR also welcomed the measures, but warned that this may not necessarily benefit the customers of the railway undertakings. “From the perspective of the road-rail combined transport sector, it is essential that the benefits are shared with the combined transport operators, who take the commercial risk for the intermodal trains.

“The combined transport sector has suffered a 15 per cent volume contraction during the April-June period, while the number of trains on the network was much higher. In many cases, combined transport operators have made huge efforts to maintain the network and the frequency of trains. As a consequence, a substantial financial hit has been taken by the operators due to lower-than-usual load factors of the intermodal freight trains”, the interest group said.

Next step

The new rules will take effect the day after publication in the EU’s Official Journal. Then, it is up to Member States to adopt the rules. According to UIRR, rail freight stakeholders should form an alliance in every country to jointly request that the government in charge of the infrastructure actually makes use of the solution created in the Regulation. “Combined transport operators are ready to join this communication effort.”

ERFA Secretary Conor Feighan is happy that the European Commission may extend the Regulation beyond the end of this year. “We do not know when this pandemic will end or what course it will take. It is therefore important that the Commission has the ability to act decisively and extend the Regulation if and when required.”

Watch the interview

Do you want to hear more about this topic? Conor Feighan will be a guest at the RailFreight Live show on Friday 18 September. You can tune in at 1pm CEST, or watch the show any time after that on our Youtube Channel.

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Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is editor of RailFreight.com, online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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