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Sat Dec 10th, 2011 at 05:53:21 AM EST
Railways in the EU are subject to a much more fundamental reform than the establishment of TEN-T corridors: a policy of deregulation, with the intention of moving from a world of national railways to one of private train-operating companies competing on tracks accessible to all and managed separately. This is the principle of "open access". In the first part of this series, I detailed what open access is about and how it compares to other models of rail privatisation, and reviewed the experience with open access in railfreight, which is a legal as well as practical reality for years now.
Open access in long-distance passenger transport started more recently. In most countries, the legal prerequisites were in place two years ago, but the market didn't develop as intended. There have been few enterprises trying to make use of open access, and those who did were beset by problems. Significant open-access competitors are starting up only in recent months (most of them tomorrow on 11 December), the apropos for this diary, which contains a critical review of every single venture I'm aware of (so everyone can read the parts for the countries s/he travels in).
A series 575 ".Italo" (Alstom AGV) high-speed train of Italian open-access operator NTV at the company's newly built maintenance base near Naples in July 2011. Photo from Ferpress
Long-distance passenger open access
Open access progressed much slower than intended by the reformists behind the EU legislation in 1991. More than a decade later, egged on by a wide consensus in the European Parliament (EP), the EU accelerated the process. However, the deregulation of passenger services still fell far behind what the enthusiasts wanted.
One key problem is that a lot of local passenger services need subsidies to run, and the public authorities granting the subsidies still want efficient networks and long-term stable relationships with operators. Thus, if privatisation is considered at all, then the franchising model is chosen. In addition, some states (above all France) didn't want any deregulation of the passenger market. (In even more countries, and most notably in Germany, there was significant opposition to complete unbundling, that is, the complete separation of the infrastructure manager and the train-operating branches of the former monopolist state railway.)
All this left one sub-market for the EU to deregulate: international (long-distance) passenger services. Thus was Directive 2007/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council born, which mandated open access for international passenger services from 1 January 2010. Some key countries implemented open access for domestic long-distance passenger transport at the same time or do so now, in fact, limited open access applied in the three pioneers of the franchising model already before 2010.
In spite of the legal provision, open-access ventures in the passenger market have been few and between in the last two years. While the problems have parallels to those in the freight sector, the technical and financial challenges are bigger. Below is an attempt at a complete overview of all open-access ventures in the EU, ordered by the key rail network affected. However, for a case study, the Italian examples display all of the typical problems and strange developments, reason to discuss them first, rather than keep a more chronological order.
- DB-ÖBB EC trains on the Brenner route: in the very first venture to use the EU-mandated cross-border passenger open access, Germany's DB and Austria's ÖBB allied to run the Munich–Milan express trains without the cooperation of Italy's Trenitalia (the passenger branch of former state railway FS), hiring drivers and maintenance staff of Italian regional railway LeNord instead. The motivation was the regular late arrival of the badly cleaned and maintained trains at the Italo-Austrian border. Since Trenitalia didn't launch Munich–Milan trains of its own, there is no direct competition. However, the DB-ÖBB trains faced a whole arsenal of hindrances:
The conflict was resolved earlier this year thanks to another development: LeNord and Trenitalia's Lombardy branch were merged, giving Trenitalia an indirect stake in the DB-ÖBB ECs. Now tickets can be bought in stations again – and strikes affect the trains again :-)
- Of course, stations operated by Trenitalia didn't display the trains in timetables and on station displays, nor did they sell tickets, leaving the option of travel agencies and internet purchase.
- Originally, the trains were to be hauled by ÖBB's new triple-voltage locos, with up to 200 km/h where possible. However, Italian authorities only gave the locos a preliminary permission for 120 km/h, and commissioning for higher speeds was drawn out indefinitely. So instead, DB and ÖBB chose a multi-voltage loco already fully approved in all countries: a leased freight loco for 140 km/h.
- Trenitalia quickly bought up the train paths used by the pre-open-access EC trains until the end of 2009, but left them unused. Thus DB-ÖBB could only buy the next paths, forcing a pointless stop at the border, and more lengthy stops in intermediate stations, even though good connections in those stations were lost (altogether up to 40 minutes extra travel time).
- The EU open access regulation includes an exception: international carriers may face restrictions if they would pose a competition for subsidised domestic local passenger traffic. Italian authorities exploited the loophole in full a year ago when they banned all intermediate stops in Italy. A battle involving courts, national governments and the EU Commission ensued, although the ban was delayed by a grace period.
A Siemens ES64F4 belonging to leasing company Mitsubishi Rail Capital Europe is about to leave Munich with a DB-ÖBB EC train for Milan in May 2010 (own photo)
- Arenaways was a private company that entered the passenger transport business in May 2010 by taking over the traction of Germany–Italy express trains with car transport. In November the same year, they launched the first competitive open-access service, between Turin and Milan. However, they were hit by an intermediate station stopping ban from the start, and a legal challenge failed to overturn that. The service thus operated at a loss, was discontinued, and in August 2011, Arenaways declared bankruptcy.
- At present Nuovo Transporto Viaggiatori (NTV) is the EU's by far most significant and capital-heavy open-access venture. It was founded by a group of Italian businessmen around the owner of Ferrari, later French state railways SNCF also bought a 20% stake. NTV wants to compete against Trenitalia's most profitable business: high-speed trains on the Turin–Milan–Rome–Naples corridor. NTV is to start its trains under the brand ".Italo" in early 2012 – a delay of almost a year, as NTV was struggling with various problems:
- NTV is the launch customer (and so far only customer...) of Alstom's intended successor for the TGV family, the distributed-traction AGV. This is both boon and bane: the 25 trains are more spacious yet accelerate much better than Trenitalia's heavy ETR500 trains, but commissioning took much longer than planned – the main reason for the delays.
- In April this year (the original planned launch date), infrastructure manager RFI prepared new rules for the annual bidding for train paths, introducing a requirement for bidders to have commissioned vehicles at hand – a condition that would have forced NTV to delay launch until 2013. The company of course protested heavily, accusing RFI (which is still part of the FS holding along with Trenitalia) of trying to kill competition for Trenitalia. This row was apparently resolved, though.
- NTV made its business plan in rosy times, then came the global downturn, so they began cost-cutting even before launch. Open-access advocates often tried to sell the reform to rail customers with the argument that competition will bring down the price of expensive high-speed tickets, however, in an interview, NTV's president expressed his hope that there will be no price war with Trenitalia and approved of its decision to raise fares upon the completion of the high-speed corridor.
Competition certainly had one predicted positive result: improved service. Trenitalia polished up its existing trains, and ordered 50 new high-speed trains. However, I suspect that this competition will end in heavy losses for one side, and even if not, Trenitalia will have much less profit to re-use to maintain a comprehensive network of services (it was only in the last year and half that the gains in the high-speed business pushed the whole of FS into the black).
- Carlo Toto, owner of Italian budget airline Air One, considered launching a rail equivalent in 2010 as Rail One. In light of the economic downturn, these plans came to naught, however.
- Currently, there are three daily pairs of TGV trains between Paris and Milan, operated under the "Artesia" joint venture of Trenitalia and SNCF. On 11 December, SNCF will relaunch these services under its own complete control. These trains run on the conventional line and SNCF wants to compete on fares. Still, this is more the case of amicable divorce than cut-throat competition, as the next venture indicates.
Artesia also operated night trains. Also from 11 December, these will be taken over by Thello, a joint-venture of Trenitalia and private French utility and transport company Veolia. SNCF is not really disinterested, though, and certainly isn't facing new competition: this represents the shedding of a less profitable business, while retaining stable income by leasing the locomotives for the trains.
Veolia will appear several times again below, so I say a few words about it here. Although it was the company that first broke the railfreight monopoly in France, Veolia's main profile in the transport sector isn't open access: they emerged as a major operator of local passenger rail franchises (as well as urban mass transit) across the EU. However, apparently their expansion was too aggressive. They first tried to regain a foothold by merging the transport branch with Transdev, another French transport company with international operations which is owned by French state bank Caisse des Dépôts. But Veolia-Transdev (which was effective April 2011) didn't save Veolia's finances, so they just announced their intention to sell their 50% share, possibly to Transdev. This will make the French state an indirect majority owner of all the franchises and open-access operations Veolia kicked off.
ÖBB bought locomotive-hauled trains rather than electric multiple units (EMUs) for 200(+) km/h traffic (possible on the Vienna–Linz line) to employ its over-capacity of locomotives (see Railjetting into Red Bull Country). Stefan Wehinger, the ÖBB manager who oversaw the railjet project, knew that all too well, and decided to upend his then employer with a rival Vienna-Salzburg service using double-deck EMUs of up-and-coming Swiss maker Stadler. WESTbahn, the currently second most significant open-access venture in the EU, was founded by a group of Austrian industrialists gathered by Wehinger, but later SNCF also bought a 26% stake. Services start on 11 December.
One of the seven WESTbahn class 4010 (a Stadler KISS) on a test run near Sulgen, Switzerland, in June 2011. Photo by David Gubler from Wikipedia under GFDLv1.2 or later and CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0
WESTbahn escaped delays, but had its fair share of conflicts and challenges:
- The trains won't use Vienna's new Central Station, but West Station – bad train connections, though better mass transit connections.
- Tickets will be sold by internet and on the trains only.
- Also in relation to ÖBB-owned stations, the CEO Wehinger expressed concern that his trains won't appear on station displays and will face difficulies in access to cleaning and car washing facilities.
- WESTbahn saw its profit margins endangered by the legal requirement of reduced fares for parts of the population, and threatened legal action unless they get state compensation like ÖBB.
- A wrangle over train paths emerged when WESTbahn scooped some train paths belonging to regional trains, which ÖBB couldn't reserve in time because the order from the regional authority giving the subsidy was late. This was resolved in a compromise (both sides giving up some train paths).
- Although back with ÖBB, Wehinger himself introduced a total smoking ban on trains ahead of a law introducing the same ban, WESTbahn wants to offer a smoking compartment. The health ministry said this plan is illegal.
- Bus company Student Agency originally established rail subsidiary RegioJet to compete for regional passenger rail franchises. The government of the Czech Republic, while creating the legal conditions for open access, also prepared to apply the franchise model to long-distance services. RegioJet wanted to apply, but already 18 months ago, threatened to go open-access on the busiest line (Prague–Ostrava), should competition with former state monopolist CD for the franchise be "unfair". By the end of 2010, they apparently decided the competition will be unfair, because open-access plans for June 2011 solidified. RegioJet, too, had problems with commissioning: while the locomotive question was solved by re-importing former CD locomotives from Italy, new coaches will be ready only from December, so services were launched on 26 September with refurbished coaches. This is another open-access service selling tickets by internet, on trains and in travel agencies only. Although the business model differs from CD's (slower but cheaper trains), RegioJet may be the first open-access competitor to face a price war. A further interesting point is that, exploiting the common Czechoslovak rail standards, RegioJet plans to extend its line into western Slovakia and later further to eastern Slovakia.
- Another venture, Leo Express, expressed its intention to become the third competitor between Prague and Ostrava, but using new Stadler EMUs. Well, good luck with commissioning and then with narrow profit margins, I say (I don't know how advanced this project is).
As I wrote earlier, rail privatisation in Great Britain used the franchising model. However, open access was always a legal possibility, only with a more restrictive intermediate stop ban than later in Italy: it wasn't just local passenger services but long-distance ones, too, which were to be protected from losing passengers. Hence, open access in Britain is not about direct competition, but about the risk-taking provision of niche services: direct connections for off-the-mainline secondary cities.
- Hull Trains was Europe's first open access passenger carrier when it launched London–Hull services in 2000. Even without intermediate stops, there was conflict potential with franchise railways: over train paths. In 2006, a big franchise railway also challenged its low track access charges.
- Grand Central launched London–Sunderland services in 2007. It was involved in the 2006 dispute, too. Last month, it was acquired by DB subsidiary Arriva.
- Wrexham & Shropshire launched its London–Wrexham services in 2008. It was later acquired by DB's regional passenger subsidiary (this was before DB acquired Arriva). In spite of achieving growth and very high passenger satisfaction numbers, having met competition from a franchise railway on another route, income only reached 65% of expenses, and operation ceased in January 2011.
- The former CEO of Grand Central set up a new company, Alliance Rail Holdings, with the intention to run several open-access services between London and cities near but not on the West Coast Main Line and the East Coast Main Line, under the brands Great North Western Railway (GNWR) respective Great North Eastern Railway (GNER). In contrast to earlier open-access ventures, which all bought used trains, they want to purchase new 200 km/h EMUs. Arriva has a big stake in this company, too. However, there are question marks over their plans. They first applied for train paths in 2010, planning GNWR's launch in 2012, but were rejected for lack of a business plan, and the Office of Rail Regulation also saw capacity problems. For his part, the CEO lobbied for train path agreements valid for decades, to be able to repay their significant capital investment (in new trains). The train path application for GNWR was re-submitted this summer, launch is now planned for 2013.
As in Britain, passenger open access was a legal possibility from early on: from the big 1994 rail reform, which turned the federal railways into a state-owned stock company with semi-independent branches and set the groundwork for franchising. However, this initial open access was severely limited (only unfavourable "leftover" train paths were up for grabs), and, like in Britain, the focus was on risky niche services.
All of the early open-access carriers emerged in a niche opened by German Railways DB. At the end of the eighties, DB's West German ancestor launched a new brand, InterRegio (IR), aimed at low-budget long-distance travellers who aren't in a hurry, and lesser cities on secondary mainlines. However, after the 1994 reform, DB's new regional passenger branch thought IR trains are a drain on their own local passenger services; while the new long-distance branch thought that they could earn more if they force IR passengers to use their more expensive premium services (ICE, IC, EC) instead – the thought that IR passengers could just quit trains altogether didn't occur to them. Thus, the IR were methodically sabotaged and killed off – opening a niche for the open-access carriers. All of these were operators of regional passenger franchises, all started with diesel multiple units built for local service, and all tried their fortunes on neglected East German mainlines. The combination of bad train paths, limited comfort and hostile DB meant that they had little success, only the very first could gain a strong footing. (Thus the gap opened by the death of the IR wasn't really filled, and you see one main reason why long-distance rail in Germany has relatively low passenger numbers.)
More open open access started legally in 2010, but its first beneficiary starts only now.
- The Leipzig–Berlin–Rostock InterConnex train was the EU's first competitive long-distance open-access passenger service upon its launch in March 2002. The operator was Connex, the (later re-named) German branch of French company Veolia (see FRANCE section) which already owned multiple regional railways and franchises. In the next 15 months, two more InterConnex lines were added, reaching Dresden and Cologne (the latter with more proper locomotive-pulled trains), but those never took off and are long gone. Connex and DB fought a spectacular series of court battles over InterConnex:
- The very name was a second choice, after DB got Connex's original idea – "ICx" – banned for too much similarity to its own IC brand.
- DB refused to show the InterConnex trains on station displays and in printed train schedules, until several courts ordered them.
- DB also prevented direct communication between its stations and InterConnex trains, again until a court order.
The first InterConnex gained enough passengers to be switched from DMUs to a locomotive-pulled train (taken from a different Connex subsidiary) in 2006.
In the first years, InterConnex 1 was operated by DMUs from Bombardier's Talent family owned by Connex subsidiary Ostmecklenburgische Eisenbahnen (OME). In spite of the aerodynamic front, this train was never designed for express service. Photo by Armin Emde from Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0
- Vogtlandbahn is a franchise operating in the west of Saxony state and a subsidiary of Regentalbahn, a former local railway in Bavaria. (Regentalbahn itself was majority-owned by the state of Bavaria, then had a "truly private" period when it was acquired by British company Arriva, which ended when Arriva itself was bought up by DB this year, and its German subsidiaries were sold to Italy's state railway FS...) In June 2005, it launched a connection to Berlin under the name Vogtland-Express. The service fills a gap left by DB, but it operates on a knife-edge, at one time discontinued and at another time replaced by a bus.
- In December 2005, another East German regional franchise operated by Connex/Veolia, HarzElbeExpress (HEX), extended some of its regional trains to Berlin over the weekends under the name Harz-Berlin-Express (HBX).
- Keolis, a subsidiary of SNCF also operating multiple regional franchises in Germany, wanted to launch a Mulhouse–Hamburg service as quickly as possible after the January 2010 start of EU-level open access. The plans failed on conditions for train paths: Keolis made a five-year framework contract, but it became clear that the commissioning of the planned rolling stock (refurbished domestic French coaches with new locos) would take longer than the deadline set in the contract, and even if not, they would have to pay for the whole five years while making revenue only for three years.
- A smaller venture, Hamburg-Köln-eXpress (HKX) planned services between the cities in its name from August 2010. Using the re-bidding for the much better train paths given up by Keolis as an excuse, HKX first delayed launch to April 2011. However, they too had trouble with commissioning: original plans to completely refurbish used EMUs from ÖBB and to purchase new coaches from Siemens were abandoned completely, while plans for additional services to Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin were forgotten, and April passed and it was summer until they finally announced a new target date. Services using only the refurbished coaches of the ÖBB EMUs
will are to finally start on 11 December.
As mentioned in the previous diary, Sweden was the European pioneer of unbundling and rail privatisation by franchising. Under the deregulation-friendly Reinfeldt government, Sweden started a step-by-step implementation of open-access for long-distance passenger services in the half year prior to the EU reform. I don't know if it is because Sweden is truly the exception that breaks the pattern or because contrary news didn't reach the media I read, but it appears open-access operators in Sweden face less problems and had no conflicts. Still, their expansion was slower than initially foreseen, and the then head of Sweden's one-time infrastructure manager was right in saying that inevitably, open-access operators will be attracted to the busiest routes.
- Veolia (see FRANCE section), a major operator of local passenger rail franchises in Sweden, too, launched the first open-access long-distance service just three weeks after the opening of the market: Malmö–Narvik sleeper trains. This wasn't yet competitive, as they effectively took over a service from Swedish state railways SJ which SJ saw as less profitable. (From February 2012, they will get to run Berlin–Malmö night trains under the same conditions.) In July 2009, Veolia then began a competitive service: Stockholm–Malmö weekend trains. The service is a slower, low-budget alternative to SJ's tilting trains. Although it was another service (beyond HKX in Germany) for which those second-hand Austrian EMUs were sought but given up on, and it was expanded to weekdays with a ten-month delay (in October 2010), its growth is continuous: now there are multiple trains on some days and extensions beyond Stockholm.
Veolia 7142 Malmö–Stockholm in Stockholm C in December 2010. The locomotive, 141 002 "Kiddo", is from Sweden-based open-access freight and locomotive leasing company Hector Rail, and belongs to a batch of three prototypes built for Austria's ÖBB (class 1012) which weren't followed by series production and were sold off instead. Photo by user Point du Vue from SmugMug
- Tågkompaniet, another franchise operator, which is majority-owned by Norwegian State Railways (NSB) since 2006, launched competitive Stockholm–Uppsala–Gävle services on weekends in February 2010. Two months later, they were already considering an extension to Sundsvall. However, instead, the service was discontinued altogether in December 2010 due to poor ridership, high track access charges and vehicle shortages.
- Airline Sundsvallsflyg announced in May 2010 its intention to launch a competitive Stockholm–Sundsvall service for December 2011. These plans were either delayed or shelved, as there are no further press releases on the subject and the trains don't yet appear in next year's timetable.
- Start-up company Skandinaviska Jernbanor started its all-first-class BLÅ TÅGET (Blue Train) services on the Gothenburg–Stockholm–Uppsala route with a modern Bombardier TRAXX loco and restored luxury coaches on 12 November 2011. The first month of service is an unofficial trial period, a circumstance the owner used to explain low ridership.
- DB is to run London–Frankfurt and London–Amsterdam services across the Channel Tunnel from the end of next year. Although both end-to-end connections will be new, the trains will run in direct competition to Eurostar's London–Brussels service (and, on the Brussels-Amsterdam and Brussels–Cologne sections, to Thalys). DB's ICE3 trains, the ancestors of the trains to be used for the new service (Siemens Velaro D), already operate pre-open-access-era services from Germany to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, thus the only real commissioning challenge was the Channel Tunnel with its special rules. A subset of these rules were the subject of an indirect battle between the French state and DB, which got more complicated when Eurostar responded to the competition by ordering new trains of the same type as DB's (only twice as long) rather than ones of French maker Alstom. (For the technical background, see Chunnel safety.) These battles now seem to be over.
- Back in 2009, airline Air France-KLM considered starting a service across the Channel Tunnel, too, in partnership with Veolia. These plans died silently, however.
- In the meantime, Trenitalia thought about services into France. With Air France-KLM having left the scene, Veolia now partnered with Trenitalia to explore the cross-Channel service idea. This plan was still alive in March 2011, but I haven't heard of it since – I suspect a wait-and-see attitude during DB's battle and Veolia's later troubles put it off the table.
Bus company Alsa announced plans in early 2011 to run long-distance trains from next year.
With different weights, you see some of the same negative consequences that emerged after open access for railfreight (see first part):
- There are examples of existing operators dropping less profitable business for open-access carriers to pick up: sleeper trains, connections to lesser cities.
- Although the long-distance passenger open access market is younger, the process of state-owned railways absorbing open-access carriers in other countries is advancing, changing the picture from the reformists' dream of a spread of versatile start-ups with new capital to one of existing state-owned dominant players competing each other on former "home" territories. A difference is the connection between established regional franchise and new long-distance open-access railways, and the dominant players come from France (SNCF and Veolia) rather than Germany.
- Commissioning of vehicles is a much stronger, almost universal problem on this market, causing delays for many operators and for others the abandonment of the venture before even starting.
There are some other trends with weaker parallels in railfreight:
- Passenger train operators need access to station facilities (ticket offices, timetable displays, cleaning and maintenance facilities), which are usually owned by a branch of the local former state railway, who can choose to be uncooperative.
- Getting unfavourable train paths due to competition, inflexible infrastructure manager or foul play matters much more due to the importance of travel time and connections.
- Open-access carriers either focus on those less profitable routes with no competition from an established railway, or focus on competition on the busiest routes, thereby reducing the income for an existing operator which is partly used to maintain a network of services with a geographically wider coverage.
Advocates of open access (who, I shall emphasize again, include a lot of pro-rail people who aren't free-market ideologues, just bought their arguments) do notice many of the above problems, but usually put the blame on the monopolistic mindset of former state railways. This is, IMHO, on one hand, off target: the behaviour doesn't need a state-owned monopolist past, being an existing major with threatened interests is enough (see the 2006 train path conflict in Great Britain). On the other hand, this blame game is either hypocritical or showcasing ignorance, and a failure to take responsibility either way: it is entirely predictable that existing companies will try to protect their market share by any means possible, so reformists should eat what they cooked.
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