EU vote: The EU’s role in UK rail

Richard Wallace,
Former European Policy Manager,
Association of Train Operating

At this time of intense political debate regarding the EU Referendum, it is worth reflecting on the benefits or disbenefits that ‘in’ versus ‘out’ will have on the GB railway. I aim to give a short insight into some aspects of EU policy affecting our railways, although it does not pretend to cover all aspects of such policy.
First, we should understand the aims of the EU and the political and legislative structure used to implement them. Is the structure fair or undemocratic? Does it allow representation of the railways’ views?

Legislation is first proposed by the EU Commission, and for rail transport the responsible Directorate is DG MOVE (Mobility and Transport). However, behind the preparation of legislation a great degree of consultation and lobbying takes place.
Two key groups represent the policy interests of the rail operating community in Europe, and they engage closely on such proposals.

One body is the Community of European Railways (CER), representing railway undertakings (ATOC is a member) and including those companies operating as vertically integrated organisations (infrastructure/operations). Then there is the European association of independent rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM), in this case representing the interests of independent infrastructure managers such as Network Rail.

Richard Wallace
These two organisations represent the majority of the European rail operating businesses, and they operate a democratic process to arrive at positions that reflect members’ views on proposed EU policy and legislation. CER/EIM then lobby (and in many cases work closely with) the Commission to arrive at proposals that hopefully both achieve the Commission’s aims and are in a form which positively (but certainly do not adversely) affect rail.

Both these bodies are supported in technical developments by the UIC (International Union of Railways), which is active in the areas of data gathering and analysis, researching innovative solutions, standardisation and education.

In addition, our own Department for Transport (DfT) and Office of Rail and Road (ORR) also engage with the Commission on proposals. However, when compared with the resources that other countries such as Italy, Poland, Germany and France dedicate to such matters, the UK’s participation can (at times) be assessed to be rather lightweight, despite the hard work by a number of dedicated individuals.

This exposes one of the UK’s Achilles heels - arguably, successive governments have not paid enough attention to EU policy on rail, and only realise the consequences of legislation after it becomes too late.

In all likelihood, many of the disadvantages of EU legislation felt by the UK may be because we did not argue our position at the right time - for example, the Non Road Mobile Machinery (NRMM) Directive initiated nearly 20 years ago, and to which scant attention was paid at the time. This directive is the reason why we can buy no more Class 66s, for example, because of emissions rules. The directive may still have issues for GB railways, despite some hurried last-minute work a few years ago to ameliorate its effects on the GB system.

Thus a point for debate: could the blame for the more negative aspects of EU legislation affecting Britain be more appropriately targeted at Whitehall’s more reactive approach on engagement, and not Brussels itself?

We should also not forget that before any legislation is passed it has to be approved by the (elected) European Parliament, while there is also the opportunity for the Council of Ministers (ministers representing the governments of each EU state) to have a ‘last say’. So there are multiple opportunities for the democratically elected British voice to be heard on Commission proposals, but if - and only if - those officials are interested enough and well enough briefed to argue the British case.

But what really are the Commission’s aims - can they be assessed to be positive or negative towards the rail system? Their aims are multiple. They wish to improve interoperability of the diverse rail network across Europe, to facilitate easier transit of both passenger journeys and freight by rail.

They also aim to introduce measures to cut the administrative costs for rail companies, and (through a degree of standardisation) to reduce the overall operating costs of running the railway.

Behind these changes are the key EU policy goals. For passenger rail it is to triple the length of the existing high-speed rail network by 2030, so that by 2050 the majority of medium-distance passenger transport should go by rail and that high-speed rail should outpace the increase in aviation for journeys of up to 1,000km.

For rail freight, the Commission wants to see 30% of road freight over 300km transferring to other more sustainable and environmentally friendly modes such as rail or waterborne transport by 2030, increasing to more than 50% by 2050.

These are laudable aims that are positive towards rail, and which envisage rail’s market share increasing with consequent environmental benefits and economic advantages both to rail passengers and to rail freight shippers as rail’s costs drop.

Do we want to be part of this? To say ‘no’ may mean turning our back on Britain’s participation in a European rail network that aims to expand and deliver benefits to rail users. To say ‘no’ would also mean Britain’s rail community potentially losing out on the economies of scale that collaborating with European partners on innovative development could eventually bring.

So, if the UK voted ‘out’ and ATOC/NR decided to no longer participate in organisations such as CER or EIM, firstly the British voice in developing a position on policy (which, in all reality, could still affect Britain) would be silenced.

One could advocate that this would not be a loss, as we would be ‘out’. But bear in mind that European policy would still have a commanding effect on trains transiting through the Channel Tunnel. Thus, if we wish to continue to benefit from the rail link to and from the continent we would still have to abide by EU decisions affecting that network, so no voice on such policy would be a distinct disadvantage.

Technical and safety standards is another area where the EU now has a direct and growing influence on our rail system. Over the past years, ATOC and Network Rail, together with the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), have been working closely with European partners on the development of new specifications and standards for railways.

The European Rail Agency (ERA) has a major input on Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs). The TSIs aim, through a set of common specifications, to promote seamless transit - particularly of rail freight, but also of passenger trains across the EU as part of the Interoperability policy. Britain is gradually adopting TSIs, although in some areas TSIs are not a practicable solution at present (for example, in terms of our existing gauge on many routes or on the third rail network). We have also developed a set of Notified National Technical Rules within our Railway Group Standards to cover such differences.

But the aim is to move forward gradually towards compliance, as TSIs enable suppliers to build products to a common specification (lowering costs), and to be assured that the product would be acceptable across the EU, thereby accessing a much expanded market compared with the UK alone. One good example would be for pantographs, seeing a common set of specifications for operation under 25kV.

So what would be the impact in this area of leaving the EU?

First, a lot of work has already been done, and ‘exit’ may entail some of this work being wasted depending on how we would wish to develop our rail system in the future (for example, continuing towards an EU standard or reversing direction and promoting a bespoke ‘GB standard’). But bear in mind that ‘exit’ would not allow us to abandon TSIs throughout - for example, the infrastructure of HS1 and the trains running over it would still have to conform to EU TSIs. Therefore, even if we did withdraw, there would be no benefit in that area - unless we are proposing closing the tunnel!

Much is also made of the fact that despite an exit from the EU, the European suppliers would still sell to us. Of course they would, but that argument misses a key point: what about the UK producers? The UK producers of rail components would still have to abide by TSIs if they wished to continue to access the very large EU market - so no benefit of ‘exit’ there, and indeed a potential disbenefit if we were not working with ERA and other bodies such as UIC on the further development of such specifications and standards, and on how they should be implemented in the most efficient way.

So I would argue there is little to be gained by exiting the EU in terms of engagement on railways, unless our aim is to continue with a non-standard and (by definition) more expensive railway, one which is not able to develop and expand within the framework of an interoperable network.

There are, of course, more contentious aspects of EU policy. For example, I am not convinced of some of the promoted benefits of the ERTMS/ETCS control/signalling systems, and I am not sure how well this would cope with an intensively worked railway such as that into London Bridge and Borough Market Junction. However, particularly for those British trunk freight routes readily connected to the continent, having a single European signalling system that greatly supports the concept of interoperability (and thus seamless and fast rail freight transit) is something to which the rail operating community should aspire.

But you have to be ‘in it to influence it’. I can see lots of long-term societal and environmental benefits to the British rail network of being within the umbrella of the European system. Out of it I can only see higher costs (Britain remaining ‘different’, so always requiring a bespoke solution), and possibly perpetuating an isolationist system with little development opportunity in the future for long-distance rail freight, to reduce or at least stem the onslaught of the ever increasing numbers of articulated lorries on our roads!

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