Europe waivers on access charges abolition

Access charges could be reduced or even waived across Europe, in response to the economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus crisis. Initial thinking was lukewarm to the idea, but a consensus is growing among national regulators and agencies to stimulate activity by reducing or even waiving the fees paid for using rail infrastructure.

In mid-August, the Austrian Ministry of Transport announced that infrastructure access charges would be cut to support rail freight flows. The ministry was acting in response to a fall in traffic, directly attributed to the pandemic. It represented a brake in ranks with other national agencies, soon to be followed by even bolder moves from France.

Deferred payment option

However, back in April, in an interview with RailFreight.com, Monika Heiming, director of European Infrastructure Managers (EIM), said that her fifteen members believed that deferred payment terms were a better option. They banked on economic recovery in the medium term, rather than simply putting the burden of cost wholly on to the shoulders of infrastructure managers. Given that they are predominantly state-owned bodies, taxpayers would be the ultimate underwriters.

“As rail infrastructure managers we can, in conjunction with rail operators, ensure that the railways are operating without a hitch”, said Heiming. New EU regulations, presented in June, allow for member states to take measures in extraordinary circumstances, including financial support to the rail sector during the coronavirus crisis.

German planned rise in doubt

A matter of days before the pandemic set in, Germany was reported as planning an unexpected rise in access charges, due for revision in the middle of December. That increase may well be in doubt now, and was even considered a surprise before the full effects of the coronavirus crisis work through the economy.

Germany has extensive freight operations and generates significant traffic. Photo: Deutsche Bahn

The lobby group, Network of European Railways (NEE) said at the time it did not fit into the current landscape. “Even when the corona crisis is over, the industry will still have to deal with its consequences”, said Peter Westenberger, NEE managing director. The NEE has called for a rethink from the German infrastructure agency DB Netz AG and the federal government.

Other measures are being taken elsewhere. In Russia, intermodal traffic is being stimulated by a significant subvention programme. Revealed a few days ago, the programme offers up to 870 euros support per 40-foot container westbound.

France crashes charges to nil

France though may move the entire continent onto reducing overall access charges. French prime minister Jean Castex announced a bold programme at the end of July, which will waive track access charges until the end of 2020, and then halve charges for all of 2021. Mr Castex’s office has said that the cost of the scheme will be offset by significant modal shift and consequently reduced carbon emissions.

Operators are obviously awake to the possibilities that differential access charging present. There are route planners now taking into account the possibilities for rerouting to take advantage of relaxed regimes in European states. Even so, the June EU directive has yet to be formally adopted, and existing regulations quite rigidly forbid discriminatory and competitive pricing. That may have left the EU open to accusations of knee-jerk policy reaction to the pandemic. However, national governments have been taking unilateral action in many other fields, regardless of EU policy, and both French and Austrian governments have acted immediately.

European Rail Freight Association weighs in

The influential European Rail Freight Association (ERFA) openly supported the French prime ministerial announcement, and has urged other national agencies to follow suit. “The announcement by prime minster Castex sends a strong signal to European policy makers that the proposal of the European Commission is fair and appropriate,” said Dirk Stahl, president of ERFA. “We encourage all national governments to implement similar measures to assist rail freight operators”.

Austrian Railways ÖBB have kick-started a track access reduction programme, followed by an even bolder initiative in France that waives charges this year and halves them in 2021 (image ÖBB)

ERFA says that access charges currently account for between twenty and thirty-five per cent of total operating costs borne by rail freight operators. The organisation says it expected that the planned reductions will significantly increase the viability of rail freight services. That sends a message for the future, which may herald a wholesale rethink in the way freight is charged for accessing the rails of Europe.

Learn more at Track Access Charges Summit

Rescheduled to 14-15 October, the fifth Track Access Charges Summit is taking place in Riga, Latvia. In the light of the extraordinary measures national infrastructure agencies are implementing, this years conference focusses on regulative, political and implementation aspects of differing access charging models. The conference is a physical and remote affair. Delegate options here.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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