Cross-border Assessment 2016

Dossier 9: Cross-border train travel

The entire dossier is available here in Dutch and English.


Cross-border train travel – Fourth Rail Package

It can be characterized as extremely contradictory that just at the moment that European integration was getting off the ground, and which made its flagship the elimination of the borders, it became increasingly difficult for the travellers to cross the same borders by public transport.[1]

The fragmentation and underutilization of the European rail network was noted by the European Commission as far back as the 1980s. The realization of the single market for transport by rail was intended to turn this trend around. With the Railway Packages, the European legislators have been trying to establish this single market, but the last three railway packages have proven inadequate: ambition in the legislation framed for the purpose has been lacking, and implementation of that legislation by the Member States has been lacklustre.

Priciples of the Fourth Railway Package

The fourth railway package was intended to rectify this failing and was therefore also announced as the crowning achievement of a long-term restructuring process. The package comprises six acts of legislation, which can be encapsulated in three fundamental principles.

The first is the least politically sensitive, intended to promote interoperability and the harmonization of safety standards.[2] Despite all previous directives and regulations, in many cases the Member States are still using various different technical and security standards. This implies that a train carriage used for cross-border transport must comply with multiple national rules and that all necessary certificates for it must be producible on demand. After further harmonization of the rules, this fundamental principle means that the European Railway Agency will become competent to issue permits that are valid throughout the entire European Union.

The second fundamental principle is politically more sensitive, and pertains to the market effect of passenger and other transport by rail in the Member States.[3] Specifically, this refers to the further liberalization of the national markets. At present, in many Member States the services are still dominated by a national monopoly that is assured of obtaining a portion of the market through private contracts. The legislation proposed by the Committee should make public services contracts the rule and private contracts the exception.

The third and final principle is about the administrative structures that regulate the relationship between the net manager, the competent authorities, and the service provider(s).[4] The essential point of discussion here concerns the independence of the net manager in regard to the service providers. The principle also provides for the setup of a European network of infrastructure managers with the task of following up and continuing the coordination between various networks.

Legislative procedure

The legislation on the technical principle was ratified in April 2016 and published on 25 May of that year. On the other two principles, only an informal accord was reached (under Dutch chairmanship) at the end of April 2016. The consolidated text has not yet been published, even though the most significant changes to the original Commission proposal are already clear. In this cross-border impact assessment, we therefore make an ex ante assessment of the frontier effects of the fourth Railway Package. Geographically, the result of the analysis is to some degree an abstraction of the specific regions for which the findings apply. The focus is on cross-border interlocal transport rather than international transport. This means at least two successive stops in two different country locations that belong to the same border region. For the analysis, we draw on a document analysis of primary texts. The sources here are the original legislative proposals as drafted by the European Commission, the opinions of the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, the positions of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, the three impact studies ordered by the European Commission and (if available) the ultimately approved wording of the acts.


Two effects are studied in this dossier: firstly, the implications of the railway package on the supply of cross-border transportation, both public and commercial (European integration), and secondly, the enhancement of cross-border governance structures (Regional cohesion).


Looking at the supply of cross-border transportation by rail, the analysis is quite positive. The realization of the technical component will lead to saving both time and costs in the permitting of the rolling stock. Whether this will actually translate into better service will depend largely on the permitting procedures applicable on the individual lines. Insofar as commercial exploitation on these lines is permitted, this is clearly a positive development. For cross-border public transportation, however, the findings are rather more conditional, as the legislator has neglected to develop a clear framework for the awarding of concessions on these lines. The suggestions of the Committee of the Regions are generally not followed, which implies that the competent authorities must be awarding these concessions under ad hoc schemes. Even if the cross-border trajectory then becomes more profitable, the service level is largely determined by the public service obligations set out in the contract. This brings us to the second component of the cross-border impact assessment.

Looking at the governance structures, the railway package will generally increase the need for cross-border coordination. With stricter division among infrastructure managers, railway operators, and competent authorities, there is a greater chance that the interests of the relevant actors will diverge. This will generally make consultations more difficult. On the other hand, if correctly implemented the diversity of market structures in the Member States will be reduced. In other words, there will be more actors at the table, each with their own interests, but the national structures within which these operate will be more uniform. Additionally, the governance aspect of the railway package provides for the setup of a number of consultation structures that can promote coordination. The creation of a network of infrastructure managers and the setup of a coordination committee by the competent institution facilitate discussion on problem issues surrounding cross-border trajectories. Here again, however, it is anybody’s guess whether these committees, once established, will be effective in generating closer collaboration.

It is clear that the fourth railway package will not be an endpoint in the establishment of the unified railway market. If the deficiencies in the implementation of the previous packages are any indication, the market will be a volatile one over the coming fifteen years. Member States will be awarding concessions less privately, which implies that the challenges with public service contracts in frontier regions will become a recurring phenomenon. Only then will it become clear whether the administrative tangles can be unravelled without a further helping hand from the EU. In the meantime, a useful step forward would be to catalogue the existing award procedures for all cross-border lines, along with the consultation structures used on them, the efficiency in terms of the award process, and the services ultimately provided under them.


[1] Peeters & Smilde (2010) Naar grenzenloos interlokaal personenvervoer. Study for the General Dutch Alliance & TreinTramBus. 10 November 2010. (page 10) Available at

[2] Regulation 2016/796; Directive 2016/797; Directive 2016/798.

[3] 2013/0028 (COD)

[4] 2013/0029 (COD) & 2013/0013 (COD)