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The EU has a lot of work when it comes to rail transportImage: AP

European Market Hindered by Rail System, Says EU

Bernd Riegert (jb)
May 27, 2006

EU officials say that much more money and effort is necessary to integrate Europe's railways.


Berlin opened its new main train station on Friday, the largest in Europe. And two days later, it will begin to redirect and revamp the way transport is handled in the capital, which is considered a crossroads of Europe. It is expected that 1,100 trains and about 300,000 passengers will use the station daily.

But the new station doesn't just play an important role for Berlin -- it also will create opportunities for the rest of Europe, especially for those traveling to southwestern Europe, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

It is an example of EU railway success as it brings modern train travel to a new level. But it also shows how European train companies elsewhere are falling behind. Before World War II it took 27 hours to travel to Tallinn from Berlin; now it takes 60 hours because the tracks haven't been brought up to speed.

Officials say that the EU states have to figure out a way to modernize and better coordinate their railways -- everywhere.

Western half of EU does better

Brussel's Midi is a central point for international high-speed rain in Europe. For 10 years now, high-speed trains have linked the Belgian capital to Paris, Cologne and Amsterdam. The Eurostar connects the city with London. And the ICE International train from Germany's train company brings passengers quickly from Frankfurt to Brussels, while the French TGV whisks them up from southern France to Europe's capital city.

TGV Hochgeschwindigkeitszug
The TGV is one of Europe's most advanced trainsImage: AP

Belgium's international hub has become a successful example of the transportation policy of the European Commission, the EU's executive body. And in countries such as France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, national networks also provide high-speed travel. But aside from trains such as the TGV -- and especially in the eastern European countries -- much is still in disarray. As a result, the EU has come up with initiatives to open the market and create consistent standards and infrastructure.

But progress has been slow so far, according to Stefan Rynck, spokesman for the EU transportation commissioner.

"It's obvious that the creation of an integrated European rail system is limping behind the rest of the internal market," he said. "That is why creating such a system has become one of the commissioner's priorities."

Rhine route is essential

The lion's share of rail transport in Europe is not passenger travel but the transport of goods. And every second shipment crosses a border. That is why the highest priority is developing the backbone of the European goods network, the route between Rotterdam, Germany's Ruhr region, Basel, Milan and Genoa, said Joachim Fried, who handles EU matters for German rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

"For us, the Rhine route is not just the main artery of Europe but also the axis of the biggest industrial centers and harbors," he said. "It is there where we have to deepen and strengthen the transportation networks."

Demontage eines Förderturms in Mörs-Kapellen
The line through the Ruhr industrial area is critical, officials sayImage: AP

The Rhine project is one of about 20 projects that the EU wants to promote. Some of them, such as the rail bridge between Denmark and Germany or the Alps tunnel project, are controversial.

Setting standards

Regardless, the EU is pushing one. It wants to create a standard license for train conductors as well as to bring the varying signal and security systems in line with each other on all major tracks. Such initiatives are expected to take up to 15 years. And what is especially problematic is the financing: funding for such projects has been more than halved in recent years.

And rail officials say that without more help from the EU, modernization will be difficult to realize.

"We were in a great position for years," said Fried. "But things have become more difficult in the past six years. These days, other countries invest far more in their tracks."

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