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How €93 million of EU money prevents Polish trains being used EU-wide

16036201402_1dc0cb950b_hPolish Railways PKP has just launched its Pendolino EIC Premium service – a fleet of brand new, 250km/h capable Alstom trains that connect Gdansk, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Katowice and Krakow. The trains are the first capable of speeds greater than 200km/h in central and eastern Europe, and were hence launched with some fanfare. Alstom even has a swanky video about them here.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 16.48.23Yet one frame of the video, shown here, caught my eye “Ready to cross the borders” it says, and the technical specification of the trains means they could run on German, Czech and Slovak electrification systems as well as Poland’s. But a line in Railway Gazette’s story about the launch caught my eye:

However, certification for international operation is not seen as a priority, as the trains are restricted to domestic services for an initial 10 years under the terms of a grant from the EU Cohesion Fund which covered 22% of the project cost.

Could this, I wonder, really be true? EU money obliging PKP to use the trains only on national routes? Isn’t that contrary to all of what the EU stands for, trying to foster cross-border cooperation?

The sad answer is yes, this is indeed true, but the story is a little more complicated than Railway Gazette explains.

€93 million was indeed granted to PKP IC for the purchase of the 20 Alstom trains, contributing 22% of the purchase cost of the 20 trains and the maintenance depot. However EU Cohesion Funds are normally allocated only for infrastructure, or for regional rolling stock. These PKP trains were to be deployed on long distance InterCity routes. This meant that the €93 million Cohesion Fund grant (from DG REGIO) was classed as State Aid by the European Commission’s DG Competition, as explained in DG Competition’s press release here.

This press release led me in turn to the competition case that can be found here, and specifically this PDF that explains the Commission’s reasoning. The important paragraph is this one:

  1. The Commission considers that, because of the targeted nature of the investment aid, the aid does not compromise the effective opening of the international passenger transport market and cabotage following the entry into force of the third railway package.

Basically DG Competition is arguing that if these trains were deployed on international routes, the state subsidy for their purchase would distort the international railway market that is theoretically open to competition. Deploy them in Poland, where the argument about territorial cohesion can be applied to justify the grant, and this is OK. Of course there is currently not a single long distance international line to or from Poland where there is any competition in passenger rail.

So there you have it. The European Union, as a criterion for granting Poland €93 million for new high speed trains, prevents these trains being used internationally. This comes of course at the same time as Berlin – Wroclaw cross border services have been axed, and the EU is funding ghost airports in Poland.

I despair.

(oh, and as if that were not absurd enough, the new trains don’t even have wifi!)


A rail postcard from Forst (Lausitz)

forst-postcard

Dear Violeta*,

I’m a regular long distance rail traveller, and when things used to go wrong with EU-wide rail I would write postcards here on my blog to your predecessor, Siim Kallas. You can find old postcards from Hendaye, Göteborg and Liège. This is my first postcard to you, but I fear it will be one of many.

wreath-smallToday I was at Forst (Lausitz), on the German-Polish border. This was a sad, and very special trip, for it was the very last ever departure of the EuroCity “Wawel” train between Berlin and Wrocław (Breslau). Trains have been running between those cities for 161 years, or about 50000 days, but today was the last one. A wreath was laid at the station in Cottbus to commemorate the final departure, and a saxophonist played a lonesome tune on the platform.

Berlin and Wrocław were, of course, previously in the same country, and indeed it took less than four hours between them in the 1930s. If today they were still in the same country I rather suspect the service between the two would not be axed.

How does that make you feel as the European Commissioner responsible for transport?

The EU is supposed to make Europe grow together, not apart. But now all the passengers on this connection will have is a poxy bus. I cannot imagine anyone ever laying a wreath to mourn the final departure of a bus.

The final train was, I suppose, fittingly depressing. Two carriages were missing from the train, and the heating and doors were broken on one of the other carriages. The train left Berlin 15 minutes late.

European rail of course cannot go on like this – if rail is to be viable it needs to build on the joy and comfort of the train, and focus on passenger comfort. The bus that will replace the train has on board wifi, but very few EU-wide rail services do.

What, I wonder, are you doing about this as Commissioner?

Some low-cost changes to infrastructure could improve things a lot at the German-Poland border, as Michael Cramer MEP explains (PDF here) – have you made the case for this to Mr Juncker in for his €315bn investment package?

Anyway, until next time, have a good weekend and safe travels. There are people out there that want EU-wide rail to work, and we’re hope you do too!

* – Violeta Bulc is European Commissioner for Transport. More about her here. Photos from the last trip on EuroCity Wawel can be found on Flickr here.


Big on the big things, small on the small things – Brussels bullshit meaning ‘deregulation’

Back in 2013, José Manuel Barroso in his State of the European Union speech stated that the “EU needs to be big on big things and smaller on smaller things” (speech text here – phrase 3/4 of the way through).

Since then this phrase has become some sort of mantra for the EU’s centre right, and supposedly social democrat Vice President of the European Commission Timmermans has used similar vocabulary. The Bavarian CSU’s party congress happening today has been full of it:

While the phrase sounds pleasant enough, the problem is this: we have no common definition of what is a small thing, and what is a big thing.

Take the widely reported decision by the very same Juncker and Timmermans to axe legal proposals on air quality and the circular economy. Air pollution causes 58000 400000 premature deaths in the EU each year*. So is air quality a “small thing”? I think not. And air quality cannot be regulated at a national level as pollutants do not respect borders.

So it strikes me that the big on the big things, small on the small things phrase is just a neat shorthand for deregulation. Think about air pollution the next time you hear the deceitful phrase uttered.

* Updated 1938 – a reader has e-mailed me, pointing out an error in my figures. Air pollution kills 400000 prematurely in the EU each year, and the proposal would reduce this by 58000. Details on the Commission’s website here.


As a whole the EU is not a source of frustration, but its politicians or policies might be

A tweet by Gergely Polner, sometime comms guy for the European Parliament in London, and now working in the private sector, tweeted this earlier today that caught my eye:

What does this actually mean? (and indeed the quote Gergely chose comes from this blog entry by Anna Notaro of the University of Dundee)

Let me illustrate the point with two further tweets:

Michael Warhurst Executive Director at Chem Trust, an environmental organisation, and his tweets relate to the decision by the European Commission to axe proposals about clean air and the circular economy.

Both Michael, and Gergely (quoting Anna Notaro), mix up a critique of the European Union per se, and a critique of the policies that the European Union institutions are proposing, or not proposing. To rephrase Gergely’s tweet, and apply it to Michael’s case, I am frustrated by the Juncker-Timmermans Commission’s decision to axe the clean air and circular economy proposals.

Put another way, my support for the existence of the European Union does not depend on what the European Union does in this case, just as my support for the existence of the UK governent in Westminster does not depend on supporting the policies of Cameron’s government.

While I of course do not know all of Michael’s views, and all of Gergely’s views, I am pretty damned certain that they would not have a common list of what policies a successful European Union would propose. Welcome deregulation in one person’s eyes is an erosion of social standards in someone else’s. Such disagreements are normal in any political system. This European Commission will be a success, or not, when judged according to the goals it itself sets, and its ability to put its agenda into practice. If they do not, they will have failed as a Commission, but the European Union itself will not have failed – we need to kick the bastards out and put in different people next time. That’s how a democracy ought to work.

So no, Gergely (and Anna Notaro), the European Union has not been a source of frustration. The people running it have not been to my taste, either ideologically or in terms of competence, but that’s politics I’m afraid. Don’t try to hold the European Union to any higher standard than you would any other political system, and watch your words when trying to define what is a success (or not).


Stuck between public service and a for-profit company, Deutsche Bahn is not benefitting passengers

db-chamaleonI travel a lot on German railways. Barely a week goes by without me making a long distance trip from Berlin to Brussels (via Köln), or somewhere further afield. I paid the company more than €2000 in the calendar year 2013, and the sum will be roughly the same in 2014. I rely on DB.

But Deutsche Bahn, the company, I simply fail to understand. It strikes me that DB manages to bundle up the worst of monolithic state-run-operator thinking about railways, and the worst behaviour of a capitalist company, into the very same entity.

Take last week’s news story as an example – HR reported that DB was thinking about abolishing its BahnCard, an accusation that was rubbished by DB itself, but HR stuck to its guns. The basic problem, from DB’s point of view, is that the flat-rate price reductions that a BahnCard offers mean that DB cannot price-maximise on trains that are close to capacity at peak hours – i.e. it wants to move to a system that is more market driven to determine its prices. DB, so HR and Spiegel reported, needs to reduce its costs in its Fernverkehr (long distance) business by €1.5 billion per year by 2019, but do not report why this is the case. This is on top of the stark reduction in the number of cities even still served by DB’s long distance services since 1999, as reported by Tagesspiegel.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 17.50.27DB, it seems, wants to profit-maximise, and not to maximise the number of people travelling by train, and for the sake of the environment the latter needs to be a vital priority.

Its response to the new competition from long distance bus operators is… for DB to run its own buses (the kleinen Bruder der Bahn apparently – flyer for the DB bus to Copenhagen (PDF)), and to look at profit maximising the long distance rail routes it runs, cutting back international connections and night trains, and also talking of cutting back unprofitable long distance routes within Germany (although it refuses to say which routes those are).

The point that is seldom raised in these sorts of reports about DB is what is its role?

DB, remember, is a private joint-stock company (AG), with the German government being its majority only shareholder. The idea to privatise Deutsche Bahn was quietly dropped by the German government in November. So, essentially, if DB has to make savings in its long distance business it is the state that will win, financially, if they do so. Yet debate about what role there should be for long distance rail services in German politics seems to be more or less non-existent. The grinning Bayern-hipster transport minister Dobrindt was drawn into the debate on whether the BahnCard should be axed, but otherwise seems to stay away from this issue as far as possible (and when he talks it’s unclear anyway).

In theory the long distance rail market in Germany is open to competition, but Veolia has found it cannot make a profit against DB and the long distance buses and is stopping its long distance rail services next week. Hamburg-Köln Express (HKX) continues to exist, but is restricted by the lack of availability of rolling stock for its service… because Deutsche Bahn will not lease any carriages to it. If the German government really wanted competition on its railway it would split the ownership of rolling stock into a separate entity as Spain is doing. When it comes to the night trains that DB is to axe, a private rival to DB taking over these routes would have the same problem as HKX – trying to lease stock. DB has previously scrapped locomotives in Poland to stop them falling into the hands of a competitior.

If DB still runs a publicly-owned railway, it needs to start behaving like one – serving passengers on the basis of need, and ensuring as many towns are connected to long distance railway services as possible. If some services are unprofitable, but judged to be socially necessary, then they should be maintained and subsidised.

Conversely, if DB is to be viewed as a competitive player in a liberalised market, then the rules of the game need to be changed to give competitors a fair chance, and to give rail a fair chance versus other transport modes (as the Greens in the Bundestag have been arguing). Innovative and nimble operators might be able to see opportunities that DB itself does not judge to be important.

As things stand, DB is neither a proper public service operator, nor is it a competitor in a liberalised market. Its half-way position most definitely does not suit the passenger, and does not encourage modal shift to railways.

The summary below comes from @grauhut on Twitter:


Apple building barriers in the EU Single Market

pixelmator-bbeditBack in October 2011, when I still lived in London, I bought two pieces of software for my Macs in the Mac App Store – BBEdit, then priced at £34.99, and Pixelmator, then priced at £20.99*. Those apps have been upgrading happily enough through the App Store system until today.

Today I reinstalled my iMac, wiping the hard disk and installing Mac OS Yosemite from scratch, and then I went to the App Store to re-download and install BBEdit, Pixelmator and others… and they were nowhere to be found.

The reason, it turns out, is that a month ago I changed my App Store location from the United Kingdom to Germany** to download the Cambio Carsharing App onto my iPhone (i.e. not even the Mac!) because as Cambio’s cars are not to be found in the UK, its app is not available in the UK App Store. Why such a discrepancy needs to persist is beyond me – a regular British visitor to Germany could quite legitimately want to see where Cambio’s cars are located.

But anyway, when installing the Cambio App through the German App Store I also had to change the credit card I have listed with Apple as well, and that struck me as rather odd. I have a Visa card from the UK Building Society Nationwide, but the address associated with the card and the account is in Germany. The Apple App Store refused this as a payment card for the German App Store. This is the screenshot of what happens:

credit-card-de

 

So not only are the App Stores national, but so to are the associated credit cards! Is that at all necessary within the European Union?

And then what about the Apps – BBEdit, Pixelmator and the others?

The way to retrieve them, it turns out, is to revert the App Store account to the UK version – requiring of course the UK Visa card to do so(!) – and then the Apps are once more available for download:

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 15.31.28

 

The problem would of course then be that if I no longer had a UK Visa card then there would be no way at all to retrieve these Apps. Remember these are Apps that I have legitimately purchased and, when I switched from the UK to the German App Store in the first place, I received no warning that my purchases will not be retrievable. If for some reason I had closed my UK bank account when moving to Germany then none of my purchases could have been retrieved at all***.

Yes, I understand that some rights restrictions mean that still, legally, national law applies to some digital purchases – especially music and films. But please tell me how software to edit text (BBEdit) and photos (Pixelmator) that is available in precisely the same form across the EU should not be portable across the EU, and hence within national versions of the App Store? It’s not as if Apple is technically incapable of tracking what Apps were purchased in which stores.

And tell me as well, why should a German Visa card be needed for the German App Store, and a UK one for the UK App Store?

The next time you hear a politician whining about red tape, and legal barriers to the Single Market, remind them of this Apple case. This is a private company that is deliberately making it difficult for consumers within the EU Single Market. This isn’t a legal problem – it is a problem of the company’s mentality.

* – make what you wish of my computer and software choices. This is essentially a blog entry about consumer rights, and I have chosen these two apps as examples as they are reasonably expensive paid-for apps.
** – note that I have lived in Denmark in between, but for whatever reason had never needed a Denmark-specific app and had hence not encountered this problem.
*** – the caveat to this is that once an App is installed on a Mac, it updates correctly through the Mac App Store, regardless of which national version of the App Store is currently being used. It is only that an App cannot be reinstalled that way.


European Disputes – live stream

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This morning I am a speaker at European Disputes, part of the Internationales Literaturfestival. My panel, with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Ulrike Guérot, György Dalos, Hubert Védrine and moderated by Wolfgang Herles will be live streamed below, 1015-1145. The full programme is here.

Pose questions on Twitter using the tag #EUdisputes.


Building an organisation to defend EU-wide rail

NightTrainsThe Vindobona EuroCity train has been connecting Berlin with Vienna daily since 1957. But from mid-December this year the route will cease to exist. This service that operated across the Iron Curtain is being seen off by liberalisation and the profit drive of EU railways. The Paris – Berlin night train, the only direct train between the EU’s two founding powers, will be axed at the same time. The Copenhagen Night Train runs for the last time this month. Philip Oltermann tells the story of the decline in The Guardian here.

The story about why this is happening is a complicated one, but at its core is the change in the nature of Europe’s railways – from being public services with a public ethos, to competitive, profit making businesses. The EU itself is behind this change, forcing railways to separate their networks from their operations to try to promote competition. This change has worked to a certain extent for rail freight, but when it comes to passengers it means long distance services that run only a couple of times a day, and are borderline profitable, become too complicated and cumbersome to operate and are cut from the timetables. Track access charges – i.e. the cost to a rail company to run a service on a neighbouring country’s tracks – are often cited as the reason.

Why then is no-one acting to save these services, and to offer passengers an alternative to flying?

My conversations with policy makers in Brussels tend to come up with the rather bland “There’s no political will to fix this” as an answer. I take this as shorthand for “No-one has lobbied me about this issue.” Rail companies and manufacturers do lobby a lot, but passengers do not.

The organisation that should work on this issue is the European Passengers’ Federation. The problem is that they have a single member of staff, based in Gent, and they do not seem to actually campaign. Other organisations I have contacted or investigated have no transport policy person (Friends of the Earth EU, Greenpeace EU), do not deal with modal shift to rail (Transport & Environment), do not deal with rail consumer rights (BEUC), or care about EU wide issues but not about rail (European Movement FR and DE).

The challenge then is to actually build an organisation, or build a position within an organisation, to be able to work on this issue. I can do what I can as an individual rail traveller using my blog and Twitter to inform people about what is happening, and to pester them about it, but I cannot myself be an organisation that lobbies and campaigns.

The very minimum that has to be sorted out in EU-wide rail for the next five years is:

  1. Complete transparency of track access charges, for all routes, in an open data format. If these charges are indeed the reason cross border services are axed, then we need to know how high the charges are. Partial systems like RNE CIS exist, but as track operators are either public bodies or monopolies full access to all charging information is vital.
  2. An EU-wide timetable system. Deutsche Bahn’s Reiseauskunft is the de facto EU-wide timetable, but it is only as good as the data that national operators give it. Italian regional trains are, for example, missing from it, and it also now prioritises DB’s bus services rather than competitors rail services. If you run a train on a track in the EU then the timetable for that train must be made available for all, 3 months ahead of the train’s departure.
  3. Full ticketing information for all services, with APIs. If I want to book Amsterdam to Warsaw, or Frankfurt to Kosice, I should be able to get one price from a single website, and for that to include all reduced price tickets. No such website currently exists (despite the efforts of Loco2, Capitaine Train and others), as railways do not systematically make ticket data available in the same way as airlines do. Some trains – like DB’s CNL Night Trains – cannot be booked at all through third party websites. So if you run a train on track in the EU you have to make all ticket data for it available for third parties to use, to allow end-to-end ticket booking to be possible. Make trains as easy to book as flights!
  4. Clear rules for what happens when there is a delay. If the train run by one company is delayed, meaning you miss a connection onto a different company’s service, what happens? If it’s a High Speed Train in the Railteam network you should be OK, but if it is not, and especially if you had to book two separate tickets due to the lack of proper booking websites (see point 3 above) you can easily be stuck.

Beyond that there are more complicated issues that will actually require some money to fix, or deal with competition between rail and other transport means. These are:

  1. Introduce cross border services where tracks exist but services do not. At borders like Ventimiglia, Port Bou, Hendaye and Villa Opicina no through services run, and even changing at the border is complicated due to timetables that are not aligned, or regional services that stop a few kilometres from the border. The EU needs to make a systematic analysis of every cross border line, ranking each, and moving towards the idea of a European core network of passenger services, with stipulations of how often regional and long distance services should run.
  2. Rebuild 15 cross border lines. Michael Cramer, the German Green MEP, has listed 15 cross border lines that once existed [PDF here], but no longer do, and require only minimal investments to re-open. EU Regional Funds could be used for this purpose, but only of course if services will run! (see point 1)
  3. Examine competition between transport modes. Rail operators – not least in Germany – have long complained that VAT on rail tickets (and not on airfares), coupled with high track access charges, are killing services, especially after the deregulation of the long distance bus market in Germany (see more on InterConnex axing services here). Fair competition when it comes to taxation rates, and access to infrastructure, would be a good start.

This is how a sort of manifesto for EU rail passengers could look for the next 5 years, with pressure applied systematically to new Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, and MEPs in the Transport Committee.

Now I just need to find the right person or organisation to make all of this happen…

Graphic by Jon Worth. Copenhagen, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome refers to night trains. Wroclaw and Vienna refers to day trains. Made with Creative Commons images – DSC01196 by taschenschieber, TrenHotel Chamartín by VivirElTren.es, Maarsbergen 1778 CNL 404473 uit Kopenhagen by Rob Dammers, PKP Cargo SU46-037 / 5 630 013 in Cottbus by Tegeler and BB 36007 Fr B It & Rame Thello entière by 8Uhr.


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