Rail freight transport in the EU: the European Court of Auditors warns it is still not on the right track

On 24 May 2016, the European Court of Auditors published the special report n. 08/2016 entitled “Rail freight transport in the EU: still not on the right track”, which examines the performance of rail freight transport in the EU since 2000. In carrying out their evaluation, the auditors visited five Member States (i.e. the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France and Poland), between mid–2014 and mid–2015.

In their report the auditors have found that, between 2007 and 2013, EU budget contributed approximately €28 billion to funding rail projects. Despite this and the priority given by the Commission to shifting freight from road to rail, the auditors have observed that EU rail freight transport has failed over the last 15 years to respond effectively to the competition presented by road.

Amongst the reasons, there is the preference given by shippers to road over rail for transporting goods. Moreover, as noticed by the auditors, EU rail network by and large remains a system of separate national networks, with various national authorities and very different rules governing path allocation, management and pricing. Therefore, a single European railway area is still a long way from being achieved.

Moreover, in three of the Member States visited, EU funds were mainly allocated to road than rail between 2007 and 2013, and when EU funds were allocated to rail, they were not primarily used to target the needs of rail freight. Finally, poor maintenance of the rail network may affect sustainability and performance.

The auditors recommend that the Commission and the Member States address the weaknesses observed in rail freight market liberalization, traffic management procedures, administrative and technical constraints, monitoring and transparency of the performance of the rail freight sector and fair competition between different types of transport.

To make better use of EU funds, they also recommend that the Commission and the Member States match policy objectives more consistently to funding allocations and the selection, planning and management of projects and network maintenance.