The enlargement of the European Union exposed many discrepencies between member states. One of those, the problems between different rail systems, raises questions over EU plans for a cohesive bloc network.
On the right track? Rail systems lack continuity throughout the EU
The state of the train system in Eastern Europe, with its corroding rail and outdated wagons, was one of the main topics of conversation at the international railway conference held in Berlin on Friday.
When traveling from Berlin to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, one must not be running on too tight a schedule. If the intrepid traveler needs anything on this journey, it's time. If things are running at the modest 28 kilometers (17.4 miles) per hour that the train usually travels at, the 1,700 kilometer journey will take around 60 hours. And that's not including the very real possibility of delays.
Something that could keep the mind busy on such an ordeal would be how a steam train making the identical journey 70 years ago took half as long. Once you come to the conclusion that's it all down to the bad infrastructure in the new EU member countries, the other 59 hours and 59 minutes could be spent boggling over the fact that only half of Poland's rail system is electrified while only a third is in the Czech Republic.
The snail's pace is made worse by out-of-date rails, creaky bridges, old fashioned carriages and faltering locomotives. But while problems exist, it has not always been that way. "Traditionally, Eastern Europe has had a far-reaching railway system," says Ralf Haase, head of the German Organization for Traffic Research. "However, the money for the necessary investments has been unavailable in recent years."
As a result, the railways have increasingly lost out to the roads in Eastern Europe. Since 1990, the road network in Eastern Europe has grown by around a third and more and more freight is being carried on the highways.
Off the streets, onto the rails
The European Union has being watching this developing problem for a long time. In 2001, the European Commission issued a report in which it mapped out its plan to shift heavy traffic off the street and onto the railways. The ultimate goal would be the creation of a modern, trans-European traffic network which would bring Eastern Europe's railways up to spec and allow freight to move around the continent solely by rail.
However, such an undertaking will not be cheap. SCI Verkehr, a traffic management consultancy, estimates that it will cost the EU €235 billion ($306 billion) to create such a network, with half of that going to rail infrastructure. Former EU commissioner Karel van Miert had issued a similar ballpark figure, estimating €220 billion would be needed. With the European public coffers looking bare, either figure would be a colossal amount to find.
The duty of all EU members
Ralf Haase sees the creation of the network as the duty of all EU countries. "The national railroads must contribute to the investments. Brussels can only contribute in terms of co-financing," according to the traffic expert. Haase is sure a solution can be found. "Everybody knows that without efficient railway systems, we aren't able to meet the challenges of the global economy."
For this to happen EU member states need to make their railways competitive. The transport of goods and people should be made part of the domestic market, with every state opening up opportunities for others to use their networks. But in reality, it's harder than it sounds.
According to a study by Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national train company, rail networks have only been liberalized in one-third of EU member states, to differing degrees of success. Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany have attempted to open up their railways to competition, while Spain, Greece and France still hold on to their nationalized systems.
Different systems create different problems
Another problem facing the utopian plan is the differing regulations and systems employed throughout Europe. In the EU alone, there are 15 different signal systems, three different rail gauges and five electrical currencies, which lead to massive delays at the borders.
It's no wonder that the average speed of European goods transported by rail is 13 kilometers. Europe faces a long and stressful journey if it is to develop locomotive harmony across the bloc.