Over the next six months, European legislators are likely to come to a consensus on the Market Pillar of the Fourth Railway Package, which covers the recast of Directive 2012/34 establishing a single European railway area and the regulation on public service obligations. This follows their agreement in July 2015 on the Technical Pillar, which revises the directives on railway safety and interoperability and the regulation establishing the European Railway Agency (ERA).
Two texts are 'competing' to embody the Market Pillar: the European Parliament's first reading adopted in February 2014 on the one hand, and the Council's general approach of October 2015 on the other. Both institutions have heavily amended the Commission's proposal, bringing the revised directive and regulation onto common (but not identical) ground. Various governance models will still be allowed and competent authorities will retain the right to directly award public service contracts, subject to a range of performance criteria.
The Market Pillar will bring the necessary stability to the principal regulatory framework for rail. The Technical Pillar will introduce major changes: with it, at least on paper, a much-strengthened ERA will be able to act both as issuing authority for vehicle authorisation and safety certification and as an impartial broker between National Safety Authorities (NSAs). This new executive role for ERA should guarantee - finally - that interoperability and safety will be put in place for the harmonisation of Europe's railways.
From the very beginning, this was the most effective outcome discussions on the Package could have led to, and it was a bright day for the railways when the Council and the Parliament reached a common agreement on the Technical Pillar in July 2015, with even brighter days to come when the text comes into force. But, as always, deriving all possible benefits from the new provisions is not simply a matter of transposing legislation. It will take real commitment from all actors: the European Commission, ERA, the NSAs, and national governments.
To guarantee a future for European railways, the same kind of commitment is needed beyond the technical field. Governments need to promote rail by providing a fair share of public investment. European institutions need to design a level playing field for all modes of transport. Infrastructure managers and train operators need to renew both their technology and their business models if they intend to ride the wave of change.
The European railway community is working intensively to respond and act in advance of the challenges that will be posed in future by ever-more-automated mobility - Google cars and self-driving trucks are little more than experiments now, but not for much longer - and by new business and consumer expectations with regards to logistics.
Digitalisation will soon be a reality in everyday business practices - and in rail too: constant monitoring and direct reporting of infrastructure quality, live tracking systems for passenger and freight services, and new tools for rail customers will profoundly reshape rail's processes, allowing the sector to break down efficiency barriers.
We are also taking steps towards changing the rail business model, especially in the way different players interact with their supply chain. For example, greater standardisation of interfaces, modules, and components would enable a collective approach to train procurement, allowing the sector to better negotiate its supply contracts and opening the door to more suppliers.
The future of European railways will be decided by a mix of old recipes as well as new ones. What will be crucial to their survival and success is a serious commitment to use public budgets to invest in infrastructure, and a serious commitment at EU as well as national level to redress transport legislation to achieve a level playing field for all modes. Technical harmonisation of the system will be fundamental to reducing costs, both in terms of capital investments and the administrative complexity of day-to-day business dealings. And finally railways know very well that they have to undergo an extreme makeover of their business models and shake up their digital agendas: freight and passenger customers should be able to rely on smart railways in the same way they rely on their smart devices.
All in all, it is about embracing the future instead of resisting it. And the rail sector is looking forward to it.