The successor of the EC Commissioner of transport, Siim Kallas, who has declared his retirement from politics after completing his term, is going to find their new office under significant renovation. At the end of 2013, the European Commission announced the most substantial overhaul in its transport policy since its inception, by replacing the existing pattern of fragmented infrastructure projects with a grid of nine major transport corridors, intended to form the backbone of the trans-European transportation network known as TEN-T.

The corridors, such as the “Baltic-Adriatic corridor” (connecting the Polish coast with Italy) or the “Atlantic corridor” providing links between France and Spain, span across the EU in order to connect its most important airports, cities, ports and industry hubs. Each of the corridors comprises of at least three means of transport and is planned to provide the best conditions for combining road, rail, water and air transport. The corridors will consume a majority of the €26 bn funding for transport within the “Connecting Europe” facility.

The idea of focusing on a few strategic projects quite evidently shows a shift of the EU’s transport policy to a more streamlined way of investing. It surely draws no inspiration from the recurring calls of the organizations such as Transport & Environment, which consistently encourages the EU decision-makers to “stop building bridges to nowhere”, taper some overgrown investment ambitions and focus on the small steps to make freight and passenger transport smarter and more efficient.

Leaders and laggards – contrasting transport quality

A novelty introduced by the departing Commissioner is the EU Transport Scoreboard – a ranking, which gives a pretty straightforward comparison of the Member States’ performance in 22 transport-related categories in four areas: road, rail, water and air transport. Some of the categories are quite intuitive, such as the number of road fatalities and motorway density, but those more technical, like the number of electrified railway lines, the CO2 emissions from new cars or the railway market liberalization have also been verified.

The most evident conclusion of the report is that a very large gap exists between the top performers and the countries from the bottom of the list. The report ranked the Netherlands and Germany at the top, each among the top 5 in as many as eleven areas, while Poland and Bulgaria are in the bottom 5 according to nine out of the twenty-two criteria.

The disparity in transport quality between countries makes it harder for lower-performing countries to catch up economically as poor transport infrastructure comprises a significant burden for business. The economic cost of road congestion across the EU is approximately 1% of the GDP, according to UITP (International Association of Public Transport). Also, insufficient infrastructure and dated transport solutions limit the mobility of the EU’s citizens, further affecting the EU’s economic competitiveness as well as living standards.

So, while the departing Commissioner can’t be accused of ignoring the problem, it remains arguable if the proposed solutions will succeed in tackling it. While streamlining the support to nine major corridors could certainly be more effective in delivering some tangible results along the selected routes, it is unlikely to help close the gaps between countries in terms of transport quality. Especially after the vote of the European Parliament on the so-called Alternative Fuels Directive, which was stripped of any significant binding targets and will likely just perpetuate the strong national imbalances in the development of e-mobility in Europe.

From patchwork to framework – Single European Sky

The project of the Single European Sky, introduced no less than 10 years ago, has not ceased to be rather an up-and-coming promise than an actual being. The initiative is aimed at integrating the European Air Traffic Management (ATM)  and intends to allow more market-based mechanisms to select the providers of air navigation services (ANSPs).

The project of the Single European Sky is welcomed by the European airlines as the incumbent structure of airspace management incurs excessive costs and unnecessary delays. For example, each flight in the EU is on average 50 km longer than it could be due to the fragmented airspace. In the US, there are 7% fewer controllers than in the EU but they are able to handle 84% more flight hours. What is more, the cost per flight hour above the US is 40% lower than across the EU’s airspace. All of that costs airlines €5 bn of unnecessary spending per year.

The existing Single European Sky legislation, updated to “SES II” in 2009, is currently undergoing an interim revision (called SES 2+) and should be upgraded to meet the needs of the growing air traffic in Europe. To do this, the political resistance must be broken and the process of opening the air traffic control services must progress to include ancillary services such as Communication Navigation Surveillance and Meteorological Information Management.

Putting rail back on tracks

Moving back to the ground, rail transport is in need of enhancements in order to grow. The so-called “railway packages” have gradually been opening the freight and passenger rail market to competition since the First Railway Package was adopted in 2001, when rail services were still heavily regulated and national rail networks were mostly closed to private and foreign carriers.

Rail transport has been changing significantly but many burdens remain in place. The latest Fourth Railway Package, proposed in 2013, aims to facilitate the authorization process for trains and move the competences of national certification bodies to the European Railway Agency (ERA), which would gain the right to issue “vehicle passports” authorizing trains to ride in any country regardless of their certification place.

With the ERA as a one-stop-shop, many of the difficulties could be avoided. A prime example comes from Poland, where the national carrier PKP Intercity made a widely publicized purchase of 20 high-speed Pendolino trains. The order required the trains to hold a certificate for the most advanced rail traffic management system called ERTMS 2, which sadly hasn’t yet been installed anywhere in Poland. Unable to get the trains certified in, say, Germany, the French producer Alstom had to agree for a two-tier authorization procedure: first go through the authorization for the less advanced ERTMS 1 and obtain the ERTMS 2 certificates later, at its own expense, to avoid fines.

As many other actions in the field of transport, easing train certification procedures is a laborious work of bringing together countless parts from all different worlds. Fixing the transport sector resembles sewing a very torn sheet of fabric. The cloth is tired and worn, many areas are kept in place by weak, single threads and the patches are just a temporary solution. Repairing the transport network is crucial to enabling the EU’s economy to grow and the new Commissioner will have to start knitting a stronger network from their first day in office.