Yes, air transport has undergone a profound change in Europe over the last decade, thanks to the EU’s single market and the aviation policies it has implemented. As Herbert Lust reminds us, Michael O’Leary and millions of passengers have Brussels to thank.
So what about Lust’s contention that nowadays the Commission’s mantra is “rail is good, air is bad”? Rail could not compete against the boom in civil aviation; on some routes it suffered losses of traffic that led to reduced or closed services. But it was also enjoying its own revolution, so in some cases rail replaced air. On routes where high speed trains have been introduced, passengers now prefer the train because it’s faster, more reliable and offers greater comfort. But there are only 3000km of high-speed track in Europe less than 5% of the motorways, with 2300km still under construction on such links as Madrid-Barcelona, Rome-Milan and Paris-Stuttgart.
But contrary to Lust’s analysis European rail policy lags behind aviation in many respects: EU rail freight will be fully liberalised only next January and international passenger railway transport in the EU will probably not be open to competition until 2011. Europe will continue to lack interoperable rail infrastructure for years to come because of inadequate funding and a Europe-wide railway locomotive driving license is just coming in the next year. In short, the conditions for fair competition between transport modes are not yet in place. And it is not just aviation that has an unfair edge on the railways. All trains in Europe are required to pay access charges for the use of infrastructure, yet trucks do not pay comparable fees for road use. And as to the new EU regulation on passenger rights now awaiting approval, it demands more of rail operators than of their aviation counterparts. If rail has a real gripe with the EU, it is that no major measure has been tabled to de-regulate Europe’s railways.
Turning to the issues of high energy consumption and the negative environmental effects of rail versus aviation the statistics are extremely clear. Aviation carries less than 1% of the freight that goes by rail, and 30% more passengers per km than does rail, yet aviation consumes 500% more energy and produces 1,600% more CO2. Any serious environmental policy to promote fuel efficiency and reduce air pollution would take these specifics into account. In this respect, today’s transport prices do not fully reflect the costs generated, especially the costs to society, and the polluter pays principle is far from being implemented. One would expect higher taxes on the transport mode with the higher emissions and fuel consumption, but the opposite is true. In such a competitive market as transport, comparatively small price and quality adjustments can lead to significant changes in consumer choices.
Almost all European countries have, after much prodding from the EU, begun the difficult job of reforming their national railways, many of which were in effect government departments. They are now becoming commercial undertakings, and after years of decline their market share has stabilised and in some cases increased. Labour productivity has doubled in many EU countries’ rail sectors and some national railway companies have launched their own international services.
But rail potential in Europe remains to large extent untapped and much more needs to be done. Here, comparison with the US and Japan is quite striking. In the US, after several bankruptcies and deregulation, and in Japan after restructuring and privatisation, rail has been resurrected and has regained respectively freight and passenger leadership.
Europe’s rail industry now needs to regain the levels of investment in infrastructure that have been missing for the last 30 years, and at the same time it needs equal conditions if it is to compete with the other transport modes.