LUXEMBOURG, June 12 (UPI) -- EU member nations this week agreed to changes sought by the European Commission to improve the interoperability of Europe's stagnating rail networks.
As passenger railways in parts of the EU are facing the decay of infrastructure and rolling stock as well as inefficient and costly operations, the European Commission in January proposed measures as part of its "Fourth Railway Package" to make trains more competitive and interoperable at the EU level.
Among its provisions, it would open nationally held railways up to private competition and simplify the thousands of rules and procedures unique to each nation.
Transportation ministers meeting in Luxembourg Monday adopted many of the interoperability measures the commission had proposed, but balked at allowing an EU-wide agency to take over from national authorities in issuing of safety certificates for all rolling stock.
EU Transportation Commissioner Siim Kallas said consolidating those national functions under the European Railway Agency -- which would act as a "one-stop shop" to issue EU-wide "vehicle passports" -- would save rail companies $600 million over five years.
Such a move would also achieve a 20 percent reduction in the time to market for new railway companies and a 20 percent reduction in the cost of authorizing rolling stock, he asserted.
The provision, however, was stricken from EU Council's draft after member states objected over concerns those savings would be offset by the increased costs applicants would have to pay to ERA for processing applications on top of costs already levied by national safety authorities, The European Voice reported.
Despite being turned back on that issue, Kallas hailed the efforts of Ireland, which holds the rotating EU Council presidency, in forging an agreement on rail interoperability, calling it a "substantial achievement."
"This creates momentum for the completion of the single European rail area and will contribute to the growth and competitiveness of the European railway market," he said.
But Kallas also warned "much work lies still ahead to make rail transport truly competitive compared to other modes."
The high administrative costs have presented a formidable barrier to entry for competitive private companies seeking access to government-owned rails in many EU countries.
Currently, only Britain and Sweden have fully opened their markets, while Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic and the Netherlands have opened theirs to a limited extent.
Meanwhile, rail service as a competitive alternative to cars is suffering, Kallas says, with the EU facing "an irreversible slide down the slippery slope to a Europe where railways are a luxury toy for a few rich countries and are unaffordable for most in the face of scarce public money."
The Fourth Railway Package is aiming at streamlining an estimated 11,000 national safety rules and regulations and to separate the management and ownership sides of national rail systems, which, the EU asserts, produces discrimination against non-incumbent carriers.
New entrants, for instance, can be hit with increasing track and station access charges for passenger services when they enter the market.