Track access charges: not an ‘if’ but a ‘must’

The rail freight sector needs immediate solutions to keep its growth rate high and achieve the modal shift from road to rail. Consistent public funding in the form of reduced track access charges (TACs) and more investments in rail could prove crucial. That was the conclusion of a round table discussion during yesterday’s European Railway Award ceremony.

Several European countries have already reduced or waived track access charges for rail freight undertakings. For instance, Germany and the Netherlands have cut them in half, while Austria and Luxemburg have waived them completely. Moreover, France, which had waived TACs for 2020, will continue implementing the measures for the first six months of 2021 and relinquishing cancellation fees. Switzerland moved on the same wavelength regarding cancellation fees while the Swiss government announced its commitment to further support the country’s rail sector, with compensations for losses.

Great help

Henri Poupart-Lafarge, UNIFE Chair and CEO of Alstom Transport, underlined the importance of public funding during the pandemic as without it the sector could have collapsed. Andreas Matthä, CER Chair and CEO of ÖBB, also mentioned that “the sector is grateful for EU institutions’ initiative to enable the decrease of operational costs”. In the same tone, Anne-Deparnay Grunenberg, Member of the EU parliament, said that reduced TACs are a great tool in Member States’ hands to support rail transport.

However, as Grunenberg mentioned, and as Adina Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport confirmed, measures concerning TACs are only relying on each Member State’s judgment. This can prove problematic, as not all countries are willing to implement changes.

Is it enough?

Until now, such measures have proved insufficient. Apart from a group of countries that were willing to relief rail haulage, the rest of Member States have showcased an unprecedented unwillingness to follow the same example. Relying on countries’ individual action without a joint programme that would force public support for rail will not have legitimate results.

Indeed, Grunenber, Lafarge and Matthä made an open call yesterday that all EU countries should follow the same rules. That is the only way to avoid the distortion of competition and ensure a level playing field for all modes of transport. The EU also needs to make sure that support will not stop after the pandemic. Instead, it needs to take the form of a permanent measure that will keep rail transport running in the long-term.

One step forward

In this case, success comes with one solution: not only relying on the Member States to use opportunities but demanding talkative support, especially from Southern and Eastern European countries. Such an approach would need a committed European policy to embrace healthy competition and “allow rail operators to keep running domestically and across borders” without burdens, concluded Matthä.

Additionally, to boost rail freight and use it as the European ‘backbone of green transportation’ such policy should have a lasting character, said Grunenberg. Speaking of measures that will transform mobility is not enough if policymakers don’t decide that Europe will achieve its sustainable goals with rail as the main driver. And for rail to become the main driver, drastic, realistic and long-term measures are essential.

Investments and pollution

Apart from TACs, it’s also critical for rail to see more investments. For instance, it is quite ironic that, during the European Year of Rail, the EU Agency for Railways’ budget reduced by 1,8 million euros. Simultaneously, the funding of other agencies related to the sea and air transport increased, according to Grunenberg. This situation proves that Europe might be quite far from realising promises related to rail transport and that solid support should be the primary focus instead of vague promises.

On the other hand, as Lafarge said, the road transport sector still has around 300 million of unpaid externalities related to pollution. To achieve a level playing field, polluters must pay, and green contributors must enjoy the benefits of sustainable operations. Any other case just proves the hesitation to support the modal shift and fully adopt green policies and equal terms for all transport modes.

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

Editor at RailFreight.com

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