Europe May Clash on Railroad Competition

Some member states are angry over proposed regulations opening their state-owned operations to competitors

The European Parliament and member states are likely to clash over a package of railway reforms, as the assembly gets set to inject more competition into Europe's rail networks rejecting many of member states' common proposals.

With the second reading of the European Commission's "third railway package" scheduled for today (17 January), many MEPs have expressed dismay that EU transport ministers have not met parliament's preliminary demands on liberalization deadlines, basic passenger rights or even certificates for railway staff.

The biggest sticking point in the MEPs' report, subject to a vote on Thursday, is likely to be its call for all railway passenger services to open up to competition and break the stranglehold most state-owned operators enjoy.

Parliamentarians accept EU governments' date for opening up international passenger rail networks to competition from 2010, but they also insist on liberalizing domestic services from 2017, something that member states have refused to set a date for.

"Taking into account that the set-up of the internal market was completed in 1992, it is time for railways to welcome competitors" centre-right German MEPs Georg Jarzembowski, in charge of the dossier, told EUobserver.

According to Mr Jarzembowski, the main opposition comes from member states such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as "they protect their state-owned operators and favour market shares over citizens' interests."

But despite the reservations raised by individual MEPs, it is expected that the report on liberalization deadlines will win enough votes in the plenary, as "the report is based on compromise with the socialists" Mr Jarzembowski said.

The Parliament's Transport Committee already gave its blessing to the text last December, with 30 votes in favour, 10 against and 5 abstentions.

PASSENGER RIGHTS TO GET BOOSTThe assembly is also eager to establish EU-wide passenger rights for minimum compensation when trains are delayed, similar to air traveller rights which came into force last February.

Under the parliament's plan, all passengers would get 25 percent of their fare for a delay of 60 minutes or more and 50 percent for a delay of 120 minutes or more, but only if the operator can be held responsible for this delay.

As an overwhelming majority of MEPs is leaning toward the plan, it could be another blow to the EU member states, which have been trying to restrict the rights to international travellers only.

"There is no logic in doing so, as international travellers make up only five percent of the total number of railway passengers" Belgian liberal MEP Dirk Sterckx told EUobserver, adding "the level of companies' obligations is reasonable".

STAFF CERTIFICATESA similar parliament�member state battle is expected over the MEPs' proposal requiring all railway staff to meet harmonized minimum requirements relating to medical fitness, basic education and general professional skills.

Whereas member states only wish train drivers to be covered by the directive, according to Gilles Savary, a French socialist MEP dealing with the issue, "stricter rules are necessary for mainly security reasons" underlining "it may save lives in case of a train accident."

Given all the sticking points between the parliament and member states, it looks as if the third railway package will undergo a so-called inter-institutional conciliation procedure.

The conciliation committee will bring together negotiators from the parliament, the council and the commissioner in charge of transport, aimed at striking an overall balance between all three institutions.

The committee has six to eight weeks to reach the final wording for a "joint text", after negotiations are launched.

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