In the name of the fluidity of trade, the European Commission would like to see the main railway axes of the continent set to the same gauge, to avoid tedious transhipments to Spain, Portugal, the Baltic States or Ukraine.
As part of the update of its program for the construction of trans-European corridors (TEN-T), the Commission proposed at the end of July to forget the planned connections to Russia and Belarus. On the contrary, it intends to integrate Moldova and Ukraine, even bringing one of these major axes to the port of Mariupol, destroyed and occupied by Moscow.
According to this text, which will be discussed by the States and the MEPs, Brussels also wants the new railway lines to be built by adopting the standard gauge of 1.435 meters, then the existing lines forming part of these corridors to be adapted to this gauge, destined to become the norm throughout the continent.
The main railway lines in most European countries already adhere to an inside track gauge of 1.435m (chosen as the standard in Britain in 1845, and widely used around the world ever since). Also referred to as the “normal route”.
But other networks have different gauges on the margins of the continent, requiring transhipments or the use of complex equipment when the trains have to continue on their way: the former USSR with the Baltic States, Moldova, Ukraine, the Belarus and Russia (1,520 m), Finland (1,524 m), Ireland (1,600 m) and the Iberian Peninsula (1,668 m).
“The migration to standard European gauge (…) aims for better interoperability of rail transport in the Union and with neighboring third countries,” a spokeswoman told AFP.
“Unified European Network”
“The difficulties in exporting Ukrainian cereals, linked to currently incompatible rail gauges, illustrate the crucial nature of these efforts”, she pointed out.
A reversal of history, when we were still considering building a “Russian gauge” line (1.520 m) through Slovakia to connect Ukraine to Vienna, Austria. There was talk then of importing Chinese goods more easily by rail.
Beyond the new lines, the States concerned will have two years to present a conversion plan to Brussels, once the new TEN-T program has been adopted. They will have “a margin of appreciation” and will be able to decide on the timetable, the Commission insisted. But they will have to justify a possible refusal, with socio-economic analysis in support.
“The long-term objective is to create a unified European network”, says the European text. Ireland, completely isolated, is not concerned.
In practice, Spain has already built its new lines and linked the port of Barcelona to France on the standard gauge. At the other end of the continent, the future Rail Baltica link must cross the three Baltic States from north to south and connect them to the Polish network, also adopting a standard gauge.
Converting the rest of the network would be symbolically important but difficult to achieve in the short term, say Estonian Infrastructure Minister Riina Sikkut and Latvian Transport Minister Talis Linkaits, according to Estonian public broadcaster ERR.
If it does not speak of big money, the Commission dangles European subsidies, in the name of the removal of “barriers to interoperability”.
One problem to be avoided is the appearance of compatibility problems within the same country, between European corridors rebuilt on standard gauge and lines of local interest having kept their 19th century gauge.
The 27 must seize the text in September.
The Finns, whose rail network is only connected to the Swedish railways by a single line in the north of the country, have already expressed their disagreement. Their Minister of Transport Timo Harakka is calling for an exemption, considering that changing the gauge “would not be feasible either from an economic point of view or from an operational point of view”.