Word came this morning that Belgian trains are being turned away at the Luxembourg border, unable to enter the grand duchy because a new safety system being used on the trains has not yet been approved by the Luxembourgish authorities.
The new safety system (TBL 1+) forces trains to a stop if a driver runs past a red signal. Belgium has been in the vanguard in installing this system much earlier than its neighbours. But because approval of rolling stock is still done by national authorities, it means that Belgian trains cannot cross borders until it is also approved by its neighbours.
A spokesperson for the Belgian railways told Flemish media that they are just waiting for Luxembourg to give its approval. “The administrative procedure is currently running its course,” he said, a worrying phrase coming from a Belgian civil servant.
Passengers may not even notice the problem, however, since as I've written before Belgium has now ended almost all of its traditional train service leaving the country. With the trains to Luxembourg blocked, now the only trains to depart Brussels and leave Belgium are the much more expensive high speed trains. The trains to Luxembourg were the only ‘classic' international train destination from Brussels left.
Until the situation is resolved, passengers will have to disembark at Arlon and board a different train to take them the one additional stop across the border to Luxembourg city. This is already a familiar ritual to low-speed rail travellers from Brussels to Lille (who must disembark in Tournai), Aachen (change trains in Liege) and Breda (change in Roosendaal). All of these used to be direct routes.
It is this kind of problem EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas is trying to alleviate with fourth railway package, which is now being considered by member states and MEPs. The proposal would, among other things, mandate interoperability of railway rolling stock by giving the European Railway Agency control over the vehicle authorisation process.
This authorisation is today done by national safety authorities and delays such as the one now happening in Luxembourg can cause massive disruption to the rail network. The Community of European Railways (CER) estimates that €1.2 billion worth of railway vehicles are currently parked somewhere in Europe waiting for national administrations to authorise them with safety certifications. They also estimate that each year the European rail sector spends half a billion euros on these various national authorisations.
But the proposal has been bogged down over other issues in the package – most prominently the unrelated issue of ‘unbundling' rail network operators from train companies. At a hearing by the transport committee in the European Parliament yesterday, the CER urged lawmakers to separate and ‘fast-track' the technical pillar of the package, which would centralise train authorisation, from the controversial unbundling part.
“If you really want to open the market, if you really want to help the rail sector to improve its performance and cost efficiency, then a quick and pragmatic reading of the Technical Pillar would do the job,” said Libor Lochman, CER executive director. “It would allow all types of railway undertakings to get their vehicles faster and at more reasonable prices, new international traffic to grow, and the rail system to be more cost efficient.”
It's quite a coincidence that a prime example of this inefficiency here in the low countries should emerge just hours after this hearing. In the mean time, hundreds of passengers trying to get between Brussels and Luxembourg will be inconvenienced. But perhaps this is an excellent excuse for travellers to experience the delights of Arlon.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.