On 21 March, the European Council discussed the recently published Commission proposal for a recast of the 2008 directive on the interoperability of the EU rail system, thereby starting its work on the fourth railway package.
With the proposal, which is part of the technical pillar of the package, the Commission aims to accelerate the integration of the whole European rail network. This can be done by removing existing administrative and technical barriers to a single railway market, in particular by increasing the efficiency of the vehicle authorisation process through an enhanced role for the European Railway Agency, and by clarifying and updating technical standards and conformity assessment rules. This should make it possible to cut administrative costs, speed up administrative procedures and increase economies of scale for railway undertakings operating across the EU.
During the debate, ministers broadly acknowledged the need to increase the efficiency of the authorisation process. However, misgivings were expressed about the transfer of competences from national authorities to the European Rail Agency as proposed by the Commission. More specifically, several member states pointed out that responsibility for the authorisation of vehicles used only on the national territory or on local or regional networks should remain with national authorities, so that the specific situations in the different countries can be properly taken into account. Some delegations argued that the harmonisation of railway infrastructure was not yet advanced enough to justify a centralised authorisation procedure and suggested that the role of the ERA should be enhanced gradually. Several delegations were of the opinion that the ERA should be given a stronger supervisory role, but not responsibility for authorisations. The issue of liability in the event of accidents was also raised.
Discussion of the proposal will continue in the Council's preparatory bodies in the light of the comments made by the ministers.
Clean power for transport
During the meeting, the Commission also presented its recent "Clean power for transport" initiative and held an exchange of views with the Council.
The goal of the initiative is to break the oil dependence of transport and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport by accelerating the market uptake of alternative fuels and vehicles adapted to their use. The initiative, which was published at the end of January, consists of a communication on a European alternative fuels strategy and a related proposal for a directive on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure. The communication sets out a comprehensive strategy for the promotion of alternative fuels and the road to its implementation in all transport modes in the EU. The goal is to establish a long-term policy framework designed to guide technological development and investments in the deployment of these fuels and boost consumer confidence in the fuels.
Ministers generally welcomed the initiative and acknowledged the need for harmonisation and standardisation. Many delegations, however, voiced concerns about the proposed target numbers of recharging or refuelling points, the financing of the proposed measures and the deadlines for implementation. It was stressed that member states needed flexibility for implementation. There were also questions about standards and technology, which is still evolving. Moreover, a number of member states also highlighted the maritime dimension of the initiative.
The Council's preparatory bodies will pursue the examination of the proposal in the light of the remarks made by the ministers. The adoption of the text requires approval by both the Council and the European Parliament.