As the final votes tally for the 2009 EU election was counted it became clear that voters had two concerns uppermost in their minds; a European government that would firstly repair the ailing economy and secondly bringing about a stop to global warming.
The final result awarded an emphatic win to the conservative European People's Party group and handed an unexpectedly large mandate to environmentalist parties including the Green-European Freedom Alliance.
With these two dominant goals in mind the consequences that this election will have on rail transport should be obvious. By restructuring the European rail transport market and strengthening the position of rail against other modes of transport the EU Government could achieve the welcome outcome of killing two birds with one stone.
By achieving the tri-fold mandate of opening the European rail markets to competition, improving interoperability and developing rail infrastructure set by the previous government, the new regime will seek to open up trade between partner countries, provide access to hitherto closed off-markets and by building infrastructure boost both passenger and freight movement in underdeveloped nations.
The effect that boosting rail transport will have on the environment is equally significant.
Moving passengers and freight off the roads and onto rail will have a major effect on lowering CO2 emissions, a result that will be made even more telling if current directives to invest in intelligent transport systems achieve their goal of making rail transport cleaner and less congested.
Achieving this level of cohesion between member nations, however, is no easy task.
National rail bodies have, over the years, developed very complex internal systems and operated within tightly governed parameters that will have to adapt both legislation and contend with infrastructure and rolling stock that are more often than not incompatible with other nations.
When the new parliament convenes to reread and debate the rail agenda later this year, the first task will be to eliminate these persistent barriers to national cohesion. If this can be achieved the tracks towards a stronger greener economy will have been laid.
All aboard for an open market
The major challenge for rail within the EU is to open up national freight and passenger markets to cross-border competition. To do so, the EU has set out the goals of creating better harmonisation between partner nations and developing key cross-border rail routes.
The fundamental principle behind the EU directive to boost competition is that greater competition will create a more efficient industry. Legislation to this end has thus far been based on a creating a clear distinction between infrastructure managers and the railway companies that use this infrastructure for transporting passengers or goods.
By separating these entities essential functions such as allocating capacity and infrastructure charging and licensing will be split from the actual operating of services. This is designed to decrease the monopolisation of entire stretches of railway and provide more companies the opportunity to get a look in.
As far as rail freight goes, since the start of 2007, freight transport has been completely liberalised across the EU, meaning that any licensed EU railway company can offer national and international freight services throughout the EU.
The market for international rail transport, however, will only become equally liberalised from January 2010.
Any licensed EU rail company will then be able to transport passengers across member countries, stopping at whichever station pleases them.
The challenge of interoperability
One of the bigger obstacles in creating a united European railway will be improving interoperability. At present major technical obstacles stand in the way of running trains across different networks.
Across Europe large tracts of infrastructure are incompatible, as are rolling stock and procedures to approve rolling stock across networks. Different track gauge widths, electrification standards and safety and signalling systems make it all the more difficult, not to mention more costly.
To overcome this, the European commission and members of the broader rail industry signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 to allow for the deployment of the European Rail traffic Management System (ERTMS).
Under the ERTMS, the European Train Control System (ETCS) guarantees a common standard to allow trains to run on different networks. Validation of the ETCS standard involved a ten-year phase of research development leading up a commission decision made on 23 April 2008, which laid out finely tuned specifications that would allow interoperability between all projects in Europe.
Measures to improve the circulation of rolling stock across Europe have also been put in place. The commission has encouraged close bilateral cooperation between suppliers, railway undertakings and railway administrators to simplify vehicles, recast existing railway interoperability and modify regulations and safety directives.
These measures were put in place from December 2006 onwards and have been accepted widely on networks including the Rotterdam-Genoa corridor.
A green signal for the future
Transport is seen as key to achieving EU climate change and energy policy goals, especially in the target areas of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency. In these fields the commission has set targets to decrease emissions by 20% and increase efficiency by 20%.
To this end the Commission has published the Greening Transport Package, which addresses the very real effects that railways and transport have on the environment in terms of local pollution and global warming. The commission also recognises that, as the grand plans of a united European transport network come together and grow, the problem will only get worse.
Within the package, the commission targets road freight as the worst of the polluters due to its high levels of CO2 and other emissions.
When it comes to rail, however, the government has singled out noise pollution as the greatest offender and has announced plans to reduce the noise from freight trains by 50%.
Wheel interaction has been identified as the primary troublemaker on noisy trains. To solve this, in 2002 the EU adopted technical specifications that would limit noise levels on high-speed trains. A similar decision for conventional freight and passenger trains was made in 2005. Freight wagons – the loudest of all carriages – now have to be equipped with low-noise break blocks to drop levels by the required 50%.
The 16 million people that the commission believes will benefit from quieter trains, however, will not sleep easy until at least 2011. Due to the long lifetime of rolling stock currently on the tracks and the fact that they are growing louder with age, the commission has warned that it will take several years before noise emissions will reach acceptable levels.
The cost of improving environmental impact should fall on the shoulders of the users, according to the EU. Member states have been encouraged to make sure that prices reflect the transport cost to society in the belief that this will encourage users to change their behaviour.
Down the line
The incoming EU parliament is expecting to make few changes to the current agenda and with the vast majority of member states mired in an economic crisis not seen since World War II, pulling down international economic barriers with the laying down of a new united rail network may just be the ticket to breathe new life into the joint economy.
The new government will put its first foot on the path to building in the European autumn this year when it plans to convene to discuss initiatives to improve rail transport under the moniker 'eliminating persisting barriers'. Rules for the management of freight corridors between member states will also be on the agenda following a vote on regulation scheduled for later this term.
Moves to regulate environmental impact will also be made during this term, when the new parliament votes on a second reading of the directive on the application of information and communication technologies to make transport safer and cleaner and to reduce traffic congestion.
To say that rail will solve all problems is a huge overstatement but the benefits that rail can bring by opening up and creating new markets are immense.
Likewise, the mounting concerns over the wellbeing of our planet cannot be solved by the running of eco-friendly hushed trains alone. But by getting freight and passengers out of gas-hungry cars and lorries, an important modal shift can be achieved that could break a very toxic cycle.