Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 06:17:54 AM EST
Promoted by Colman and edited for form by Jerome and DoDo again.
The graphs above show the development of freight transports in and across the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps, with rail traffic in black and road traffic in grey (in million tons) . It is quite striking that Switzerland does something right the two EU members don't at all. All three countries are in the process of building giant railway base tunnels, but present trends indicate they'll only suffice to maintain rail's already low share in the EU-member two...
Actually, what's not too apparent on the Swiss graph is that while road's share grew after the opening of the Gotthard Road Tunnel in 1980, this slowed in the nineties, and turned around after 2000. This was achieved by restrictions for heavy trucks, quotas and passage charges on one side, and fairly high-quality railfreight and trucks-on-railcars transport on the other side.
This is not for the wisdom of Swiss leaders – the group think of the political class is active there, too. Instead, it's direct democracy: Swiss voters have repeatedly, and consistently voted for expensive transalpine and local rail network projects, financed by taxes and road charges, and against more road construction in a number of referendums. Just a year ago, when another right-populist/industry proposal of re-starting major road construction was tabled, and the government's constitutionally-demanded 'opposite' proposal was for even more construction, both were voted down.
And what happened in the other two? For Austria, you can see a blip around 1990: that's when they too tried to restrict road traffic, with road charges and later quotas. But, border-crossing rail transport wasn't well developed – and, even at the time Austria was only applying for membership, the EU exerted persistent pressure to reduce and abolish the charges/quotas, citing internal market rules of 'fair competition'. No matter that the road charges only added (part of) the external costs (pollution, noise etc.) to trucker's prices.
Yeah, that old 'free-market' dogmatism again! Below, a rant on the EU, 'free markets' and railways. (No I'm not against the EU.)
As the resident hard-left nutter at Eurotrib, I'm expected to rail against any privatisation, yeah right. However, unlike many of my Western counterparts, I didn't arrive here due to some ideological dogma or general distaste for capitalism (in fact, I still don't reject it), it was just the opposite: thinking privatisation/deregulation was a silly idea in specific fields led me there. Such as healthcare, the electricity network – and railways.
The philosophy of the current EU rail policy is to create competing private railways with free access to railway lines across Europe – and it is dead wrong.
The problem of European railways is not lack of competition: competition is already there, with road (and riverboats and air). The problem is a four-decades shortage of network investment, while at the same time, the rival modes were (and are) made more competitive with massive investment.
"But it'll bring in private capital", I hear. However, not in this system, where private capital primarily floods to buying rolling stock, price wars reduce re-investable profit margins, and ultimately the State is called in to prop up the infrastructure (see British example, and also to some extent Sweden). Worse – I wrote network in the previous paragraph for a reason.
However, a result of privatisation is a further sucking-away of profits on mainlines, and thus a starving of side lines. But the "unprofitable line: close it!" mindset blindly ignores customer's needs: if less destinations can be reached by rail, even if only a smaller part of your transports are affected, won't it be simpler to transport with one mode of transport – and that's not rail? (This is even more true for passengers – indeed a forgotten reason why railways were public service.)
This is my main problem, there are some more. One is unstable service, as companies go bankrupt (examples in Germany) or the effect of safety neglect kicks in (examples in Britain). Also, the heirs of the old national railways try to maintain their positions with all kinds of tricks – which usually only hurt the position of the rail sector as a whole (say, selling old locomotives to scrap metal handlers rather than rival upstart railways). While in the EU documents I sometimes have to translate as part of my work, I see that the 'reformers' are well aware of the many tricks already applied, I doubt they'll find a working remedy even for these – not to mention foreseeing further tricks to be applied.
So what do I think should have been done instead? Strangely enough, to a good part stuff the EU also promotes, as part of this general rail liberalisation programme. Rail freight is most competitive over longer distances, but in the EU, borders hamper that: for rail, borders are system changes. Changeovers in electrification systems, technological standards, operating philosophies and organisation.
Unifying standards, operating international trains with multi-system locomotives, and a common safety system should work with more intertwined and cooperating national railways too, especially if the EU and the states (and regions etc.) care about maintaining the whole network.
Update [2005-9-27 3:9:25 by DoDo]: Of course I made it rather simple above, adding details would have made this ten times as long; but as I started with praising Switzerland, I have to address the fact that they did and do in fact have a lot of private railways. However:
- these do not compete: they cooperate;
- most of them are majority-public-owned (by cities, cantons and the federal state),
- in the last few years, there was a consolidation process: the state railway ate up some 'privates', and most of the rest coalesced into three larger regional networks.
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