• This is not what the EU says it wants to achieve!

    By Peter Krebs Editor, VCS-Zeitung Switzerland The figures don’t lie. Rail transport in the new EU member states of central and eastern Europe is declining, in some countries rapidly.

    [mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]The EU has many declarations about sustainable mobility and creating equal conditions between different modes of transport, but in reality it is EU policies which are strangling the form of transport that these countries most need and where they have (or had) such a good start.

    If you look at rail transport in 2004, when the first 10 states from the former ‘eastern bloc’ joined the EU, the situation was promising. The rail network was – in many cases still is – very dense. In 2002, public transport’s share was much higher in these countries than in western Europe. According to figures from Eurostat, bus and rail together had a share of almost 40% in Hungary and 22% in Poland, while the average in the then 15-member EU was 15%.

    Yet since then, rail has lost much of its share. According to figures from the international rail federation UIC, train travel in Poland in 2009 was 22% down compared with 1999. Hungary and the Czech Republic also reported a drop in rail use, and the figures from Romania are catastrophic, although the country has been an EU member for less than four years. It is no better for rail freight. Only Slovenia can show a slight increase in goods being transported by rail – all the other countries report a fall, with Poland losing 45% of its volume in the last decade.

    The tragedy is that both passenger and freight transport have increased enormously since the end of the Soviet era. But the transport growth has been almost entirely limited to road and air. In Romania, the number of cars rose fivefold between 2001 and 2007 from 72 000 to 360 000, while in Poland, the 4 million cars registered in 1990 had become 9.3m by 1999.

    Despite various declarations of support – at national and European level – for sustainability, environment-friendly transport and fair competition between modes, neither the politicians nor the rail companies have succeeded in modernising the railways and making them competitive. Old and slow rolling stock, sparse timetables, and long waiting times to buy tickets have made train travel so much less attractive if going by car is an alternative.

    The EU has contributed directly to this problem by investing considerably more in expanding the road network than the rail network. The transport TEN programme for 2007-13 allocates around €42 billion for co-financing road infrastructure projects in the 12 new CEE member states. According to calculations by Friends of the Earth Europe, 53% of the money is for roads, 30% for rail, and 11% for public transport in cities and regions. For Poland, which is getting EU co-funding for its €38bn transport infrastructure programme, there will be money for 2855 kilometres of motorways and highways, and the expansion of eight international airports, but only 1566km of the rail network will be ‘modernised’.

    The EU says its funding programme aims to create ‘more equal conditions in the transport system, to reduce the negative environmental effects of transport and congestion’. The decline in levels of rail use shows that the opposite is happening. It cannot be coincidence that in Romania and Slovakia, where rail is having a particularly hard time, more than half of EU’s money is going to road transport.

    But it’s not all bad news. There is a much more even distribution of EU money in Estonia, with interesting results. The TEN-T funding is being divided 41% for roads and 46% for all public transport. Estonia and Slovenia are the only countries in which passenger transport by rail is up, albeit at very low growth levels. Nevertheless, these two small countries show that, if you are serious about expanding public transport in central and eastern Europe, you can achieve what the EU says it wants to achieve in its 2006 sustainable development strategy: ‘a move towards sustainable transport.’

    VCS is a Swiss member organisation of T&E. The VCS Magazine’s September edition carries a detailed article about the decline of rail transport in central and eastern Europe.