The privatisation of British Rail created a morass of operational knots that the government is now trying to sort out amid public outcry over safety and punctuality. The Dutch have put the brakes on privatising their own system amid fears of similar problems.
So what can transition economies learn from advanced ones when it comes to restructuring their railway systems? What Role for the Railways in Eastern Europe? offers some basic guidelines.
Competition from private cars poses one problem – the rate of car ownership per 1 000 inhabitants is rising steadily in eastern Europe and is already close to western European levels. Air transport is becoming more competitive, and the steady decline of heavy industry in these countries means less income from freight transport. Priorities will have to be drawn to decide which services railways should focus on – passenger or freight, local or international.
For the moment, per-passenger railway subsidies in western Europe are 15-20 times higher than in the east. Rail’s advantage is that urban sprawl in these countries is not extensive and residential densities are high. This favours an “open access” approach, that is, to focus on expansion on an international level, in particular for freight transport. More than 50% of the freight revenues of the German and French rail services are from international traffic.
Also, given that rail transport is more technology-driven than labour-driven, investing in high-tech improvements could make existing infrastructures quickly competitive. But problems need to be resolved at border crossing points and in dealing with environmental concerns.
It is clearly in the interest of all countries to learn from past experience, and work together to create rail systems that improve efficiency, reduce accidents and – of course – make the trains run on time.
©OECD Observer No 230, January 2002