Ash cloud disruption prompts MEP calls for improved European rail network - La Treizième Étoile: A blog on EU politics
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Ash cloud disruption prompts MEP calls for improved European rail network

Wednesday, 21 April 2010
The now infamous volcanic ash cloud that drifted over from Iceland and grounded flights across Europe for days has prompted calls for the European Union to develop a better and faster rail network after highlighting the region's dependence on air travel.

A small plane (upper left) flies past smoke and ash billowing from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul, Iceland on April 17, 2010 (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)In a heated debate in the European Parliament last night, the parliamentarians who had managed to get to Strasbourg, said the 27-country bloc had reacted simply too slowly to a crisis that had brought to light a serious and urgent need to bring other forms of transport up to date.

"Member states should finally learn a lesson from what has happened," said the EPP’s Marian-Jean Marinescu who is a member of the Parliament’s transport committee. “The modernisation of our railway transportation is a priority. We talk a lot about it but don't do much. In Europe today you can't buy a train ticket to travel in a civilized way from the north of Europe to the south of Europe."

For years now, rail travellers (myself included) have often bemoaned at not being able to buy just one single ticket when travelling between European countries, instead having to buy individual tickets for each stage of the journey. In addition, it is hard to find clear information about international transfers and train routes and that the cost is often high.

For Hannes Swoboda (S&D) improving onboard conditions is a priority. He told the chamber that he had used trains and roads in the past few days to travel from Belgrade to Vienna and then from Vienna to Strasbourg, and found the trains "pretty grim".

"The toilets on the train were completely blocked because so many people were on the train and using them. The corridors were full of people sitting in them because there weren't enough seats," he said. "It was a pretty big disaster, I can assure you."

The Parliament’s president Jerzy Buzek said in a written statement that action was needed to ensure the bloc representing more than 500 million people developed its rail network and was not caught unprepared again.

"This crisis reminds us how important it is to invest in all forms of transport on a long term perspective," he said. “We have experienced in recent days what it means to be stuck at an airport being forced to find alternative means of travelling. Other forms of transport are not always suitable for long journeys or emergencies."

The Current EU high-speed rail network (Photo: Wikipedia)
The EU has in fact been working on opening domestic rail markets to more competition since 2001 and introduced new legislation this year to help implement its plans, but it has itself constantly faced implementation problems because of “foot-dragging tactics” in some member states.

The Commission has previous complained that some countries (not mentioned) have not created a level playing field on issues including access to infrastructure and price setting, and accused of moving toward protectionism during the economic crisis.

Rail travellers should now as a result see the acceleration of previously announced expansions of high-speed lines throughout France, Italy, Spain and the UK over the next five to 10 years, with other international services close behind. Eurostar are looking into expanding its routes from London to Spain and Germany via Paris and Brussels respectively which should be good although will not happen before the Channel Tunnel is opened to other company services.

But the major obstacle arrives in the form of funding and the planning issues surrounding new high-speed lines. Construction of a new infrastructure is hugely dependent on large levels of financing and those decisions remain mostly a decision made by each member state.

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