As of 1 January, rail operators are in theory allowed to open international passenger rail routes in all EU countries, challenging powerful state-run companies such as France's SNCF and Germany's Deutsche Bahn. But few new service offers have been put on the table so far.
Since the beginning of the year, all European rail companies which have the necessary licence and security certificates can now access the rail infrastructure networks of all 27 EU member states to operate international passenger services between different EU countries.
The European Commission hopes the move will offer rail undertakings and infrastructure managers new business opportunities.
Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani said the opening up of the market is "expected to increase choice for passengers and lead to a quality leap in the service provided," as well as lowering prices.
European rail freight has been open to competition since 1 January 2007, but the opening of the market has not led to serious increases in competition, nor a substantial shift of freight from road to rail (EurActiv 22/01/09).
No competition for purely national services, but cabotage allowed
The EU directive allows international trains to pick up and set down passengers at stations located in other member states as well as within a given country (so-called 'cabotage').
Meanwhile, it allows the EU 27 to limit the right of access on routes covered by public service contracts if the share of international carriage accounts for more than half of the passenger turnover of railway undertakings in a given member state. Member states will also be allowed to charge a levy on international passenger services.
However, few new offers have been made so far. Potential competitors to powerful state-run companies have argued that the rules make it difficult for alternative suppliers to invest the capital needed to enter the market.
According to the directive, companies will be allowed to access all infrastructure by 1 January 2012, even if their passenger volume or turnover share is more than 50%.
Franco-Italian venture expected to be launched by 2012
According to press sources, French water, waste and transport group Veolia is in talks with Italian train operator Trenitalia to run its own high-speed train services in France. This would challenge French rail group SNCF's monopoly on high-speed lines (TGV), including the Eurostar services between London, Paris and Brussels.
Talks about lines between Paris and London, Brussels to Paris and Lyon, and Paris to Strasbourg and Frankfurt are "at an advanced stage" and services could be launched by 2012, according to Le Figaro, a French daily.
Trenitalia is also hoping to launch new services between Paris and Milan and Paris and Genoa in summer 2010.
Jean-Michel Dancoisne, French rail group SNCF's representative to the EU, said he was not afraid of liberalisation or competition, as there is currently not enough demand for rail passenger services anyway and new EU rules will allow SNCF itself to further develop and expand its services.
He also stressed that liberalisation is not the answer to the problem of decarbonising the transport sector and urged other transport modes to "internalise" their pollution costs by introducing new tolls to make rail traffic more competitive.