Commission approves Austrian support scheme
The European Commission has approved an Austrian financial support scheme for rail freight transportation. The scheme which is compiled by two measures aims to cover grants and relieve rail operators from track access charges. With regards to the track access charges, financial support will be implemented retrospectively, covering the period from 1 March until 31 December 2020. Additionally, the approved budget is estimated to encourage the country’s traffic shift from road to rail.
The debate concerning possible measures that would relieve the rail sector from the COVID-19 impact has been taking place for months now. Various voices have expressed opinions regarding the importance of waiving track access charges, and have requested from governments to undertake the costs of support. Austria, specifically, had announced since 8 August its willingness to implement discounts on rail freight infrastructure usage. A few months later its proposal has been approved by the Commission and will be directly put in action.
As mentioned above the financial support concept will include two measures aiming at Austria’s rail freight sector. Apart from these, it will also include a measure that will back commercial passenger rail operators and boost the use of public transport.
Regarding rail freight transportation, one of the two initiatives will compensate for a preexisting support scheme of the Austrian government and will cover an amount of 150,7 million euros. The second initiative will target the alleviation of rail freight operators. The amount to be invested on this side will reach 115, 7 million euros. The reasoning behind this decision is to allow the rail sector to breathe after the pressures it experienced during 2020 and the pandemic outbreak.
The European Commission welcomed the proposed measures with enthusiasm. Apart from their practical and proximate usefulness, they are thought to have a long-term value for the European rail sector. Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President, commented on the developments: “The measures will contribute for rail to maintain its competitiveness compared to other modes of transport, in line with the EU Green Deal objective”. Moreover, they are aligned with the recently adopted EU regulation 2020/1429, that allows member states to “temporarily authorise the reduction, waiver or deferral of charges for accessing rail infrastructure below direct costs”.
Besides the advocates of state and European support for rail, there are also sceptical voices over the backlash that such a policy could have. A few months ago, for example, the combined transport group UIRR, had expressed second thoughts about how beneficial would these measures be for the railway undertakings’ customers. On the same wavelength Libor Lochman, Executive Director of CER, had commented that “infrastructure managers could lose part of their income due to the decrease of costs”.
Nevertheless, the newly introduced acts have a compensational character and do not seem to disturb the market further. What’s left now is to see whether the measures are going to be welcome by all sides and whether their impact will only have a positive nuance.