European Railway Infrastructures: Towards a Convergence of Infrastructure Charging?
Y Crozet, University of Lyon 2 - LET, FR
Transeuropean railway freight networks will be opened to competition from March 2003 on. In principle, freight trains from a similar company should be able to use the networks of different countries without being delayed by changes in engine or driver.
The set-up of this critical point of the new European Guidelines (2001/12-13-14) will be accompanied by technical and political difficulties. However, even when the latter are removed, the issue of how to charge the use of railway infrastructure will be raised.
Currently, charging rules and levels applied in European countries differ a lot from one another. Though this diversity is not critical when networks are closed, it becomes more complicated when they are interconnected and even more when several companies from different countries are using them.
This issue is particularly acute in France where infrastructure tolls are relatively low, forcing the State to highly subsidise the infrastructure management (RFF) . However, it is also relevant in most of the other countries: first because subsidising the railway system occurs everywhere under different forms; then because current national networks are more or less based on cross subsidies mechanisms, which will be called into question by the opening-up to competition. Thus, while the current situation is characterised by a strong divergence, it can be useful to wonder about the ways of a relative convergence in charges, related to the use of railway infrastructure. Coming from the equalisation in competition conditions, this convergence also has to be related to solving a problem specific to railroads : how to combine use optimising charging policies, while maintaining some sort of subsidies? Subsidies indeed remain one of the persisting characteristic of railways and this should not prevent a relevant charging policy from being set up.
To assess the scope of the work ahead, the first part will review what the economic theory clearly recommends in the matter. As the latest White Paper of the European Commission reminds it, infrastructure charges should equal the marginal social cost, taking into account long term considerations, like Ramsey-Boiteux based modifications.
These apparently simple principles are actually hard to implement because they tackle several goals:
* favour the best possible use of the rail network;
* cover all or part of the operating and maintenance cost of the rail network;
* reflect the level of service provided to the carrier; * contribute to the costs of developing the rail network.
And even if the principle of charging at the long term marginal cost can jointly satisfy these goals, other are added on top of them:
* encourage the use of rail transport in intermodal competition; * contribute to a balanced regional development.
The second part will describe how each national railroad infrastructure charging policy brings its own answer to the issue, weighting these goals differently depending on national priorities and traditions. These particularities will be acknowledged in a brief presentation of the British, German and French charging policies. This will lead us to stress some paradoxes, which make the case for changing the current charging policies.
The most obvious one comes from the fact that tolls were high in a country where investments were low (United-Kingdom) and low where investments were large (France)! From these national differences, the third part will underline the possible ways of convergence. The solution proposed, and already on going in some countries is to differentiate charges in time and space and to take into account very closely the abilities to contribute as well as the service quality. On some parts of the network, infrastructure charges could be very low, thanks to subsidies. On the contrary, they could be much higher on some other parts. This discrimination is logical. Indeed, it aims at benefiting first from the capacity to contribute of the last-resort payers: local governments for urban zones and firms for high quality service trains (Freight ou High speed), which profitability is assured by business clients.
Then, this kind of pricing enables to decide on the network's development. In places where investments are critical to increase capacity, higher charges are required. Thus, rises the crucial question of twenty-first century for train: is it necessary to develop railroad at all costs? Or shall it be circumscribed to its relevant zone, which is today suburban transportation, high speed and the freight, on some axes only?
Association for European Transport