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A Sound Transport Policy (Not in The EU)

by DoDo 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.

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Great diary, and nice graph. I agree with you that the Swiss are doing something right there, and it's a pity that the EU cannot do the same.

As an interesting aside, I note that French traffic is going down, which is another kind of performance... I assume this is due to the fire at the MontBlanc tunnel and subsequent traffic diversion.

(Another point - there is a lot of work currently under way on the Lyon-Turin rail link - see this for instance...)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Sep 26th, 2005 at 06:42:38 PM EST
Regarding the EU, I want to make something clear: I think the problem is not in the EU, but in the minds of the majority of (national) politicians across Europe - at EU level only their shared views boil down to consensus. (Even in Spain, while both Zapatero's (and before his Aznar's) government builds railways like mad, at the same time highways are built even madder.)

Good point about the MontBlanc fire, altough from the graph and more data in the article I took it from, rail traffic also decreased in absolute as well as relative numbers... But maybe that was due to the Monte Carlo tunnel closure?

I don't have many French sources, so thanks for that on the Lyon-Turin link. BTW, I recall the project was put on hold after Jospin was out - how was Chirac's and the right-wing government's opposition overcome?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 03:26:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What are the units on the graphs? Do they measure tonnage? Shipping dollars? Percentage of something?
by asdf on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 06:47:42 AM EST
Sorry, "shipping Euros."
by asdf on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 06:48:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Metric tons, in millions. (Sorry for not mentioning that!)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 07:15:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting numbers, I would have never guessed from the number of trucks you still see driving on the Swiss highways. I was wondering when they finally will move onto the train, seems they already have and that it would be far worse otherwise.
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 07:30:58 AM EST
Indeed: still more could be done. I hope the two NEAT tunnels will have an effect - the first opens in 2007.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 07:45:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
According to this page
about 1/3 of freight to, from, and within Colorado travels by train.

There is essentially no passenger service in Colorado, although there is east-west train service through Denver and also a train that passes through some small towns in the southeastern part of the state on their way from Kansas City to California. Amtrak runs a ski train from downtown Denver to Winter Park (round trip $50).

by asdf on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 08:48:10 AM EST
Yeah, the USA has a much higher percentage for rail in freight transport (for the whole EU, something like six times higher...), as measured in ton-kilometres.

But, to be fair, the distances and settlement structure of the USA explains much of this, in addition to the borders problem I mentioned at the end of my post. Much higher wagonloads are a US advantage, but trains are slower than here and the infrastructure is at places rather decrepit - so I'm not sure how they would compare under similar conditions.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 10:15:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Did you get my email? If you did not get anything, can you drop me a line so that I know the best place to write to you?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 10:40:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When I looked at that site, it appears to be more like 25% is rail and most of that is coal, nonmetallic minerals, and concrete - all what seem to be low value to weight.  So when we look at transport by value, rail is less than 10% of the total and third behind truck and air transports.

I am from Colorado and was excited at first that the Department of Transportation even discusses rail.  Then, upon looking at your link I felt the same as usual.  DOT analysis and projection simply runs current numbers out, there is no strategic thinking, and we just pour more money into highways.  I'm not aware of any of the gubernatorial candidates having a position on transportation besides following Owens' 'build more highways!' policy.

Thanks for the website.  Though it's depressing, it's useful to know what's going on.

by red moon dog on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 11:54:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ten years ago, an Austrian friend was complaining about all the trucks on their roads.  Most of the traffic came from eastern Europe, and it was bitterly resented by the locals.  He thought that it had actually contributed to Joerg Haider's rising popularity.

I can't imagine what they think now, it looks like traffic is twice as bad.

by corncam on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 10:03:10 AM EST
East European truckers, and truck drivers working for Western trucking companies, work for less money for more hours (and with crappier trucks), so yes this is a reason for the increase of the lorry avalache (look at the upsurge in 2004 on the graphs).

But, Italian truckers are also part of it, they dominate(d) the north-south route, and it was the Italian government who exerted most pressure on Austria through the EU to remove those restrictions.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Sep 27th, 2005 at 10:08:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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