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Interview with Gösta Weber, Project Manager, RoCK Project

Submitted by on 23 Jun 2011 – 11:47

by Simon Gillon, Managing Editor, Government Gazette

 

I met Gösta Weber, Project Manager for the RoCK project, on a rainy day in London not far from the Eurostar terminal at King’s Cross, only two hours away from Brussels and the heart of the European Union. It was a pertinent place to meet to talk about the RoCK project, not only because it is covered in the scope of what RoCK is all about, but also because building the channel tunnel and joiningup the UK with the rest of Europe’s rail network, which we now take so much for granted, was still merely a dream only 30 years ago. RoCK is laying the foundations for joining-up the European network in ways which our children will also probably take for granted, and it’s at the stage of turning visions and strategic planning into action. The RoCK project is building on the Open Access Directive of January 2010, which deals with the subject of rail regulation in the European Union. The project receives funding of 12m Euros, half of which is provided by Interreg IVB, and although this is a very significant sum, when it is seen in the context of the entire European rail network, it can clearly only begin to make an impression.

But that is just what the project aims to do – to help make a real impact, to prepare the foundations, to begin the planning for sustainable growth based on existing infrastructure, to initiate pilot projects, and, perhaps most difficult of all in any context of change and development, to begin to challenge and to change existing attitudesand interests.

The market principles of privatisation and competition are well understood in the EU, but the rail sector has not been at the forefront of these, and although there has been some successful liberalisation in the freight rail market, the passenger sector has lagged behind for a number of reasons, It is, of course, possible to travel the length and breadth of Europe on the high speed international lines (Budapest, for example, is only two changes – Paris and Munich – away from London), but at a local and regional level the infrastructure is much less well joined-up.

Recent legal changes have meant that instead of regional and local trains from one country having to stop at the first station they enter in the neighbouring country (if you used to leave the Netherlands via Maastricht, for example, then you would have to change trains in Aachen to continue your journey into Germany), trains can now continue to stations of their choice (so you can go through from Dusseldorf to Den Haag). But this apparently sensible and simple development is actually fraught with practical, legal and contractual difficulties. What happens if an operator from Germany wishes to pick up local passengers in the Netherlands on the way from the German border to Den Haag? National operators, who have public service contracts, will then start to lose money to foreign competitors, which could ultimately start to undermine the coherence and efficiency of the national operation. This is one of the many issues to which RoCK is seeking to find sustainable solutions.

But that worst case business scenario is not the only practical problem. Other issues in joining-up the rail network include languages, security, regulations in different national jurisdictions, safety certificates issued in each country (which are necessary for travel through its territory and must be obtained in each country separately for each coach, possibly with slightly different criteria each time), single track, or non-electrified stretches of track in border regions which have traditionally been the end of the line, rather than simply a small stretch of an international journey, and understandable resistance from operators.

The politicians on a strategic level have a vision of an entirely joined-up EU-wide regional network which makes better use of existing and available resources, which is sustainable, which reduces oil usage and cuts CO2 emissions, noise, pollution, accidents and costs, and which also benefits regional development at the same time. (Ashford is a good example of where rail development, in this case Eurostar, can be a spur to developing all manner of local business and residential infrastructure, with significant economic benefits for the surrounding area). But below the strategic level, it is no one’s responsibility to join up the network. Indeed it can run contrary to an operator’s interests, and those of its shareholders, to whom it has a fiduciary duty, to do so. And so, there is a situation where the legitimate business interests of an operator may actually be in direct conflict with the strategic vision and the opportunities intended to be provided by establishing new legal frameworks. However, Gösta Weber is positive that, as the rail network is worth so much more than the value of its individual component parts, RoCK can start the process moving in a positive direction on many levels, in order to realise the true value and release the potential of the whole network The RoCK project’s aim is to make positive and sustainable inroads into all the spheres of difficulty or resistance, laying the foundations for sustainable growth. There are a variety of ways in which this is happening. Using feeder services into the network, for example, is one way of increasing accessibility into the existing infrastructure. Making use of existing capacity more intelligently and productively is another way of improving sustainable co-operation, where spare capacity is not currently being used and potential benefits are not being realised.

Also, as with Ashford, both the wider Lille region and the King’s Cross area of London are benefitting hugely from the Eurostar network in terms of infrastructural and economic development. This, for Gösta Weber, is a key element in the project’s vision: That spending on rail is not an end in itself, but that it should have an economic benefit, that increased mobility per se is not what is being sought, but rather that more efficient mobility which leads to greater urban and regional prosperity should be the goal, without increasing an area’s CO2 footprint. Indeed, if better use is made of existing infrastructure and spare capacity, and there is well thoughtout provision of good, central, onward transport network connections, then an area’s CO2 transport footprint can actually be reduced: If a reliable bus or feeder network obviates the need for cars and taxis, then this is the essence of sustainable growth. It is important that providing better rail solutions is not done by making other modes of transport less attractive, but that a modal shift in policy aims can be translated in practical terms into reducing the need to rely on other means as a necessity or even as the preferred or easiest option. Sustainability is hard-wired into the thinking about developing the infrastructure and delivering the other benefits.

RoCK is also looking at individual solutions to challenges in each specific case. So, for example, the Eindhoven – Dusseldorf, Eindhoven – Aachen, Maastricht – Hasselt, and Lille – London lines all need to be examined individually, with the ultimate aim of turning a patchwork of infrastructures into a seamless, energy efficient, economically beneficial thread. Another instance in which RoCK is seeking to improve the current position, is in implementing initiatives for international integrated ticketing and information across the TEN-T network. This includes the plan to have only one ticket per journey, so that national boundaries are not important. (Currently, for example, the journey from Eindhoven to Brussels is a V shape, which takes the traveller along two sides of a triangle, either almost to the German border – Maastricht – or almost to the North Sea – Rotterdam, as there is no more direct route. It also requires the purchase of one ticket in Eindhoven and another from Maastricht to Brussels. The traveller from London to Budapest mentioned earlier sets of with at least six different tickets in his pocket). On the information side, this means knowing where passengers are at any stage of their journey, and also being able to provide real-time individualised travel information covering the whole of the European rail network.

Gösta Weber is very positive that the support for RoCK’s goals is there at the right levels of government. He cites as a positive move and the start of a sustainable solution, the Dutch government’s extension of the Dutch Main Network Concession, changing rail law so that over a period from 2015 – 25, this network can include foreign stations such as Dusseldorf, Leuk, Aachen and Antwerp.

Another very positive development is the European Union’s White Paper on the Future of EU Transport Policy of March 2011, whose policy goals match RoCK’s own vision. National perspectives are not the right solution for an international network, so the drive and commitment from the heart of the EU are crucial elements of the equation working out into successful outcomes.

Two interesting industry examples are cited by Gösta Weber as comparative models which fit with RoCK’s vision for the rail network. One is the way in which the telecoms sector functions in the European Union. The other is the airline industry. An ultimate aim for RoCK would be the establishment of an organisational network similar to the Single Sky Initiative, whereby airspace in Europe is not organised in national envelopes, but where continentalwide airspace is managed along principles of operational efficiencies. So RoCK is moving in this direction, engaged in providing an initial platform, conducting feasibility studies, commissioning plans for implementation, bringing politicians together, and presenting opportunities to them and to a wider audience.

The vision is there. The strategic thinking is there. The initial investment is there. The technologies are available. The infrastructure is largely in place. The opportunities for development and sustainability are demonstrable. It’s a question of priorities and will.

The RoCK project is firmly in the driving seat and building up the momentum necessary to deliver its ultimate outcomes and results.