‘Flight tax more important for shift to rail than lower track access charges’

“We have to reduce track access charges, and especially Germany has a problem with this”, said Oldag Caspar of Germanwatch during a panel discussion at the arrival of the Connecting Europe Express in Berlin. But, in realising a shift to rail, a level playing field in competing with flights is even more important.

The clear vision of Europe in the Green Deal is that to become carbon-neutral, rail has to play an important role. However, there are many obstacles for cross-border rail in Europe, which were discussed at the arrival of the special European train that runs through 26 countries as part of the European Year of Rail, the Connecting Europea Express.

When Europe wants to be more sustainable, people not only have to travel more via rail however, but also travel less on flights, points out Oldag Caspar, Team lead German and European climate policy at Germanwatch. “We have to reach a political consensus that an average journey on rail has to be cheaper than an average journey by plane. At the moment there is still a big disadvantage for rail in the EU. Working on a kerosene tax is therefore very important.”

A panel discussion on cross-border challenges for rail, with Kristian Schmidt of the European Commission as moderator on the left, Christopher Irwin (EPF), Oldag Caspar (Germanwatch), Richard Lutz (DB), André Schwämmlein (FlixTrain), Enak Ferlemann (German Transport Ministry), and Monique Goyens (BEUC)

A reduction of the charges train operators have to pay to the rail infrastructure manager to use the rails is also important however, says Caspar. Nearly the whole panel, with leaders of German train operators, the European Passenger Federation (EPF), the German Transport Ministry and the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), agree that track access charges need be be lower. However, not everyone.

‘High charges needed for new infrastructure’

The only one in the panel that actively doesn’t agree that the track access charges in Germany are too high is Richard Lutz, CEO of Deutsche Bahn. As the national railway DB also manages the infrastructure in Germany, DB network decides on the height of the fee, which has to be approved by the German Federal Network Agency.

According to Lutz, there is a flipside to the discussion. “If you reduce the access charges to direct costs and lower it, then you need to answer the question who is covering the rest of the costs.” According to the head of DB, the reason for the high charges is that DB’s top priority for the next years is more infrastructure, and digitalising existing tracks, which costs billions and billions of euros. “If there is additional money to reduce the track access charges, I would also be happy, but if money is a scarce resource, I say let’s put it into infrastructure”, says Lutz.

Andre Schwammlein, CEO of private operator FlixTrain, strongly disagrees with this. “As you [DB] for long-distance trains, pay the access fee to yourself, it’s not a matter of money, but where the money flows. It would be more fair and generate more services and competition with lower track access charges.” He points out that in Sweden, for example, the fees are way lower. “The rail networks in Sweden and Italy have not fallen apart, and there is healthy competition between the incumbents and new entrants.”

Carbon pricing to lower track charges

German Federal Government Commissioner for Rail Transport Enak Ferlemann agrees that ‘the more competition on rail, the better’. But, you need a certain amount to have sufficient funds, he says. “We did start the experiment for freight trains to halve the fee by 50 percent. I could imagine the same for long-distance passenger rail to be more competitive, but somebody should have to substitute the losses. And that would have to be the government.”

The Commissioner doesn’t know how this would work, but suggests that perhaps the revenue of carbon pricing could be a good opportunity.

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Author: Esther Geerts

Editor of RailTech.com

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