Rail transport

EU rail transport policy is geared towards the creation of a single European railway area. Three packages and a recast were adopted in the space of 10 years following the opening-up of the sector to competition in 2001. A fourth package, designed to liberalise rail services was adopted entirely at its first reading by the European Parliament (February 2014), and the technical pillar was adopted at its second reading (28 April 2016).

Legal basis

Article 100(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.


A common transport policy which safeguards both competition and the freedom to provide services necessitates the harmonisation of technical, administrative and safety rules. Gradual harmonisation of these requirements is essential if there is to be interoperability between national rail systems. Environmental and consumer protection measures may also have to be harmonised to some extent in order to prevent distortions of competition and make it easier for new companies to enter the market.

In its Transport 2050 roadmap the Commission sets the following goals: in the long term, completing a European high-speed rail network; in the medium term (by 2030), tripling the length of the existing high-speed network and maintaining a dense rail network in all Member States; lastly, ensuring that the majority of medium-haul passenger transport is carried out by rail by 2050.



Through the adoption of Directive 96/48/EC of 23 July 1996 on the interoperability of the trans-European high-speed rail system and Directive 2001/16/EC of 19 March 2001 on the interoperability of the trans-European conventional rail system, the EU began a process designed to ensure that trains can transit smoothly and safely from one Member State rail network to another. A number of technical solutions (known as ‘technical specifications for interoperability’ or TSIs) were drawn up as part of these directives. The technical solutions focus primarily on key aspects such as control systems, safety, signalling, telematics applications for freight services, training for staff engaged in international transport operations, freight wagons and noise abatement.

The two directives were amended and updated by Directive 2004/50/EC of 29 April 2004. The scope of the directive on the conventional rail system was extended to cover the whole of the European rail network, in order to meet the demands created by the full opening-up of the rail network to national and international freight transport services (in January 2007) and international passenger transport services (in January 2010). Directive 2008/57/EC of 17 June 2008 — amended by Directives 2009/131/EC and 2011/18/EU — recast the earlier directives into a single text. At the heart of the directive is the principle of mutual recognition. Where vehicles have already been checked and authorised by one Member State, other Member States may subsequently verify only the parameters specifically relating to technical compatibility with their networks. The fourth railway package should do away with mutual recognition in an effort to strengthen the role of the European Railway Agency (ERA) (see B below).

In order to reduce technical barriers to interoperability, in 2005, 2008 and 2012 representatives of the rail industry and the Commission signed memorandums of understanding on the deployment and development of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS/ETCS), which is designed to harmonise the EU’s 20-odd different signalling systems and introduce a uniform automatic speed control system based on the latest developments in telecommunications technology. In July 2009 the Commission adopted a European plan providing for the gradual deployment of the ERTMS along the main European rail routes within a decade (for further details see the 2013 report by coordinator K.Vinck).

National and international freight transport has been entirely open to competition since 1 January 2007. In an attempt to make better use of the international freight network and improve its interoperability and, hence, make the railways more competitive with other modes of transport, the EU has mapped out nine competitive European freight corridors (Regulation (EU) No 913/2010 of 22 September 2010) for goods that have to cross several Member States.

b.European Railway Agency

The European Railway Agency — with headquarters in Lille and Valenciennes (France) — was set up by means of Regulation (EC) No 881/2004 of 29 April 2004 with the aim of improving the interoperability and safety of the European rail network. The agency’s main task is to harmonise, register and monitor technical specifications for interoperability (TSIs) across the entire European rail network and set common safety targets for European railways. The agency itself has no decision-making powers, but it helps the Commission to draw up proposals for decisions. Regulation (EC) No 1335/2008 of 16 December 2008 assigned new tasks to the agency in response to the changes made to the Railway Safety Directive (2004/49/EC) and to the Directive on the interoperability of the rail system (2008/57/EC). Further to the adoption of the Fourth Railway Package, the agency will become the only authority with the power to issue vehicle authorisations (for locomotives and wagons) used for cross-border operations and to issue safety certificates for railway undertakings operating in several Member States. Migration towards a single Community safety certificate was in fact the main objective of the revision of Directive 2004/49/EC.

c.Social harmonisation

Directive 2005/47/EC of 18 July 2005 lays down working conditions for mobile workers engaged in interoperable cross-border services in the railway sector. It is based on an agreement between the European social partners in the rail industry. Directive 2007/59/EC of 23 October 2007 aims to harmonise the minimum qualification requirements and the certification of locomotive and train drivers in the EU. It stipulates that all train drivers must hold a licence (declaring that they have met the minimum health, basic training and general professional knowledge requirements) and a harmonised further training certificate. Specifically, train drivers must be in possession of a certificate stating that they have undergone specific training on the sections of track in question, the equipment they are using and the operation and safety procedures employed by a particular company. On that basis, the directive provides for mutual recognition of documents.

Since October 2011, certificates or licences have been issued to drivers performing cross-border services, cabotage services or freight transport services in another Member State, or working in at least two Member States.

The directive also specifies the tasks for which the competent authorities of the Member States, train drivers and other stakeholders in the sector, in particular railway undertakings, infrastructure managers and training centres, are responsible. Railway undertakings holding a safety certificate are required to keep a register of all additional certificates issued.

d.Access to infrastructure for railway undertakings

Directive 95/18/EC of 19 June 1995 provides that, in order to gain access to the infrastructure of all the Member States, a railway undertaking must hold an operating licence. The licence is issued by the Member State in which the company is established, provided that certain common conditions (good repute, financial fitness and professional competence) are met. The directive was amended by Directive 2001/13/EC of 26 February 2001, which laid down rail sector operating conditions (safety, technical, economic and financial) applicable throughout the EU and established a freight service authorisation procedure for the European cross-border network.

Directive 2012/34/EU of 21 November 2012 establishing a single European railway area, which recast the first railway package, replaced and repealed Directives 2001/12/CE, 2001/13/CE and 2001/14/CE of 26 February 2001 (see F).

e.Railway noise

Directive 2002/49/EC of 25 June 2002 relating to the assessment and management of environmental noise (the Noise Directive) provides a basis for the adoption of EU measures designed to reduce noise emissions from rail vehicles and infrastructure. Accordingly, in 2003 guidelines were adopted on computation methods for railway noise; noise emission limits for rolling stock used in the EU entered into force in June 2006. In April 2011 a further Commission decision revised the TSI for railway system rolling stock.

On 8 July 2008 the Commission published a communication entitled ‘Rail noise abatement measures addressing the existing fleet’ (COM(2008) 0432), in which it sets the goal of retrofitting all freight wagons by 2015. Directive 2012/34/UE also provides for a new, noise-differentiated charge collection system in the areas in question, in an attempt to encourage rail companies to retrofit their wagons with low-noise brakes (the European Train Control System (ETCS)). As a priority, the noise-differentiated infrastructure charges are intended to target freight wagons that do not meet the requirements of the TSI relating to ‘rolling stock — noise’ of the trans-European conventional rail system.

f.The recast of the first railway package (already adopted) and the fourth package (still under consideration).

Directive 2012/34/EU establishing a single European railway area, which must be transposed by mid-2015, brings together in a single text the main principles governing rail development (focusing, inter alia, on the separation of infrastructure management and transport activities), granting licences to railway undertakings and the levying of charges for the use of infrastructure. Generally speaking, the directive increases competition by making market access conditions more transparent, providing for clear separation of accounts and strengthening national regulatory bodies. It lays down in greater detail network and service access conditions and the rules governing the levying of charges.

What is more, in January 2013 the Commission presented a package of six legislative proposals, the ‘fourth railway package’, which is designed to complete the single European rail area and improve interoperability. The aim was to open up domestic public rail service contracts to competition by December 2019 at the latest, with a view to improving the quality and efficiency of national passenger transport services. Specifically, the fourth package, which the European Parliament has already adopted at first reading, seeks to amend the following instruments which are part of the technical pillar (points a, b and c) and of the political pillar (points d, e and f):

  1. Regulation (EC) No 881/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 establishing a European Railway Agency (see B above);
  2. Directive 2008/57/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 on interoperability (see A and B above);
  3. Directive 2004/49/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 requiring all railway undertakings to obtain the safety certificate in order to gain access to infrastructure (see B above);
  4. Regulation (EEC) No 1192/69 of the Council of 26 June 1969 on common rules for the normalisation of the accounts of railway undertakings;
  5. Regulation (EC) No 1370/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2007 on public service obligations for passenger rail transport;
  6. Directive 2012/34/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 21 November 2012 establishing a single European railway area (see D and E above).

Role of the European Parliament

The European Parliament has used its legislative powers to support most of the Commission’s proposals for harmonisation, whilst at the same time emphasising certain specific aspects:

  • in its resolutions of 15 June 2006 and 11 March 2008 on sustainable transport policy, the European Parliament explicitly supported the introduction of the ERTMS/ETCS rail safety, control and signalling system with a view to eliminating technical obstacles, and called for moves to be made towards establishing a single European railway area;
  • in its resolution of March 2009 on the greening of transport and the internalisation of external costs, the European Parliament called on the Commission to take steps without delay to produce specific proposals for all modes of transport and, secondly, to submit a comprehensive plan for calculating and charging external costs and assessing their impact on the basis of a comprehensible model. It then called on the Commission to draw up a proposal for a directive with a view to introducing noise-related track access charges for locomotives and wagons in order to provide incentives for railway undertakings to retrofit their fleets rapidly with low-noise vehicles;
  • as regards the separation of network management and operation, the text adopted by the EP on 26 February 2014 (on the fourth package) gives the Member States a degree of flexibility to choose between splitting up undertakings and keeping them whole, while not losing sight of the goal of keeping infrastructure management and rail operation activities separate. The national authorities could either open up service contracts to competition or award them to a single operator. In the latter case, all contracts must have a maximum length and be justified against criteria such as the punctuality and frequency of services, their cost-efficiency ratio and user satisfaction. Although they approved the initiative to open up national commercial passenger transport services to tender, MEPs decided that the deadline of 2019 set by the Commission was too short, as existing contracts would not yet have expired;
  • in its resolution of 9 September 2015 on the implementation of the White Paper on Transport, Parliament called, with regard to rail transport, for, among other things, the swift adoption of the fourth railway package, ensuring a balanced opening-up of the domestic rail passenger market, independence of infrastructure managers, competitive tendering for public-service contracts, the highest level of rail safety and interoperability, and sufficient human and financial resources to enable the European Railway Agency to act as a one-stop shop for vehicle authorisation and safety certification (Paragraph 65, first indent).

Following the adoption by the Council (10 December 2015) of its position at first reading on the three proposals on the technical pillar, the European Parliament formally approved the same pillar of the fourth railway package at second reading. Parliament adopted the following reports on 28 April 2016:

  • recommendation for second reading by Ms Bilbao Barandica (A8-0071/2016) on the interoperability of the rail system, repealing Directive 2008/57/EC;
  • recommendation for second reading by Mr R. Zīle (A8-0073/2016) on the Regulation establishing a European Railway Agency (ERA);
  • recommendation for second reading by Mr Cramer (A8-0056/2016) on the revision of Directive 2004/49/EC.

Christina Ratcliff