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RoCK final conference “Breaking Barriers – Crossing Borders"

Where do we stand after five years of open-market international rail passenger transport?

On 17 June 2015 national rail operators, industry experts, representatives from border regions and members of the European Commission came together to discuss with the RoCK partners "Where do we stand after five years of open-market international rail passenger transport?"

Importance of international rail connections

The meeting began with a panel discussion on the importance of international rail connections. Christopher Irwin, member of the board of the European Passengers’ Federation and moderator of the discussion, started off by commenting that railway lines in Europe represent a map of historic Europe. MEP Michael Cramer, Chair of the TRAN Committee on Transport and Tourism, underlined Irwin’s statement: “The gaps are where the borders are, and it is up to governments to foster activities that help these gaps to disappear.” RoCK with its focus on smaller corridors that connect regions is an import force in this regard. Cramer spoke about the importance of regional connections, using Germany since the railway reform in 1994 as an example: “Passenger numbers have increased in local and regional transport routes, and for long-distance transport the number of passengers in the trains has gone down.” For Cramer, the fact that over the last 20 years €100 billion has been invested in long-distance links with its falling passenger numbers – and that the local and regional lines have been practically neglected – is nothing more than a “catastrophe”.

Regarding the tendency of rail connections to stop at borders, Frank Zerban, Managing Director of BAG SPNF in Germany, has witnessed a similar trend within Germany: “Train services also traditionally stop at administrative borders. However, today in Germany administrations work together to improve their services across their areas of jurisdiction.” In regard to international connections, Germany today has 55 services at 49 crossings. Nevertheless, at many crossings frequency is overall very low. “Networks between German and foreign providers are necessary to increase frequency,” said Zerban.

Irwin then brought up the topic of funding for international connections. For Zerban, it is important that funding is secured for the long term to guarantee reliable services for the long term. As an example, he cited connections between Germany and Poland that were suspended on the Polish side of the border because funding was lacking, but then reinstated some time later. He also said that when new services are inaugurated, it generally takes time for passenger numbers to climb, which should be taken into consideration for funding. Cramer added that, in his opinion, connections between Poland and Germany are a “disaster”. In some cases, the time needed to travel between German and Polish cities has worsened since the political borders have disappeared with the coming down of the Berlin Wall. “The European Commission shouldn’t accept bad cross-border connections,” said Cramer.

The conversation turned to the issue of whether in building a cross-border European rail network it is better to concentrate on service itself or to take a wider view. Zerban called for examining the whole system: “We need to find out where people want to go and why, and shape our activities around that.” He has also observed that in some cases politicians build up new borders with funding restrictions. An example is a European Commission-funded route in the Czech Republic that, because of funding stipulations, can only travel in the Czech Republic and cannot be extended to Munich, which would be a logical step. Cramer also saw the need for a concept that includes more cross-border connections and proposes making cross-border connections a stipulation of big investments. He closed the discussion by saying, “Projects should consider the European welfare and conditions on both sides of a border.”

Different paths to cross-border connections

The next part of the meeting was dedicated to exploring solutions for cross-border connections within the RoCK project.

Session 1: Where is transport demand in Europe?

Most transport demand is regional, not long-distance. This is also true for regional cross-border rail. EU policy is neglecting traffic between border regions and major hubs close to an EU national border. Access points to European corridors need hinterland access to reach and attract all their potential passengers. Especially hubs close to national borders cannot reach the same passenger numbers as national hubs with unrestricted access to their catchment area.

Paul Alzer from Parkstad Limburg in the Netherlands and Peter Vandenbergh from De Lijn, Belgium, presented their solutions for regional cross-border connections. Alzer concentrated on efforts to initiate the IC connection Eindhoven-Heerlen-Aachen-Cologne. A major success achieved during the RoCK period was a law change in the Netherlands extending rail concessions to include the next hub across a border. These handover points beyond the national border are an integral ingredient for seamless mobility across in Europe, and they make rail travel more efficient. If more national rail companies were to extend their concessions to the next hubs across the border - as the Netherlands has done - regional cross-border rail travel would experience a necessary boost. Vandenbergh spoke about the Spartacus plan for better public transport connections within the Province of Limburg in Belgium, which also includes a cross-border tram connection between Hasselt and Maastricht. RoCK was beneficial for planning and preparing the Spartacus plan and for achieving a transnational safety system in consultation with Dutch partners. The experiences show the importance of cooperation between the partners on both sides of the border, as well as the need for flexibility concerning different modes of transportation for cross-border connections.

Session 2: Who should take the initiative for cross-border rail connections?

We observed that those border regions and transport organisations that most want rail services to cross the border often do not have the authority to their legal counterpart in a neighbouring Member State. Regional transport authorities on both side of a national border should be obliged to actively develop cross-border traffic volumes. Concessions for cross-border connections were also an important aspect of the second session.

Andreas Warnecke from Aachener Verkehrsverbund in Germany reflected on how concessions from public authorities generally stick within their national borders and take little account of the free market. In the end, the market cannot be expected to create the necessary interlocking concessions - laws should be in place to ensure overlapping concessions.

Session 3: Service instead of infrastructure policy

Only more and better international rail services count as a success factor, not the delivery of infrastructure, which might not be used afterwards. EU policy should focus to increase the number of train services crossing a border. Alignment of timetables across borders should be a requirement. This action in conjunction with 'hubs as system interface instead of national borders' would create a level playing field between cross-border and national connections.

Stephan Gasche from Kent County Council in the UK concentrated on the fact that more and better infrastructure is not always the answer, especially if it is not used afterwards. "Infrastructure is not enough - there have to be services using that infrastructure for measures to be considered a success," he said. As part of the RoCK project, Gasche and his team made a case for Eurostar to serve Kent three times a day on its London-Lille/Brussels route. The business prospects are good: Eurostar stands to earn over €100,000 per year in additional revenues if the additional stops are instituted. There is certainly value in developing service with existing infrastructure.

Group comes up with possible direction for future efforts

After the lunch break, a knowledge café was conducted to explore the questions "How can we effectively organize hubs as interfaces" and "What steps should we take within the next two years if we take this concept seriously?" In a knowledge café, small groups are formed that in a short amount of time address topics from different angles; the diversity of the participants was decisive for the good results at the RoCK final event. What crystallised is that to make hubs successful, it is necessary to know who the stakeholders are and to understand their rationale. Furthermore, it helps to view stations as gateways to regions and countries, and to make stations into places that meet as many stakeholder needs as possible.

Irwin went further, pointing out that transport is not an end in itself: "Transportation means jobs, serves commerce and creates links to educational institutes. We need to think big, because it's about so much more than gateways. A thorough understanding of the stakeholders is necessary, and not just the passengers themselves. It is also important to engage with communities and to develop ways to serve their aspirations." An instrument to bring stakeholders together could be the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC), which facilitates and promotes territorial cooperation to strengthen the European Union's economic, social and territorial cohesion.

Representing the lead partner city of Eindhoven, Gösta Weber closed the meeting by saying that cross-border train travel is not a technological problem. "The problem is that transport organisations don't have the right objectives to work with one another and that little consideration is given to neighbouring countries or travellers themselves and where they want to go."

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Project ended December 2015