Swedish track access charges for train services have been lower than the legal minimum levels for quite some time. This is shown in a new SNS report written by transport economist Kristofer Odolinski. Shortcomings in the charge structure result in an inefficient usage of the infrastructure and, ultimately, to unnecessary delays in train services. If the existing railway infrastructure is used more efficiently, this could lead to a reduced need for new railway projects. The first step is to ensure that the correct track access charges are levied.
In Sweden, train operators pay a track access charge in order to use the railway tracks. According to current legislation, this charge is to include direct costs for wear and tear, but from a societal perspective, it should also include other external costs, such as costs associated with noise and congestion. These track access charges are essential for ensuring that the railway network is used efficiently. According to current legislation and EU directives, the “floor” of the track access charge should equal the infrastructure costs arising when an additional train is operated along the tracks, the so-called marginal cost.
Kristofer Odolinski, a researcher in transport economics, shows that this has not been the case in Sweden for a long time. Moreover, the current track access charges do not properly take into account the costs of congestion on the tracks. Odolinski argues that Sweden can learn from the United Kingdom, which has had congestion charges in place for train services since 2002. These are based on the relationship between capacity utilisation and reactionary delays.
»We need the complete picture of the marginal costs of rail traffic and these costs need to be reflected in the pricing or in the access to tracks. Only then will the charges work as intended and result in improved utilisation of the railway network, says Kristofer Odolinski, researcher at the Institute for Transport Studies (ITS), University of Leeds, and at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI).«
If Swedish politicians choose not to force all modes of transport to pay for their own external marginal costs, the exceptions should be based on scientific evidence. With any deviations from the marginal cost, it is important to ask what is lost and what is gained from a societal standpoint.
The Swedish parliament has decided on a four-step principle to be used in transport infrastructure planning: 1) rethink, 2) optimise, 3) rebuild and 4) build new. Building new tracks is thus the last alternative when the other three alternatives have been exhausted.
»In this case, policy has not fully used the first steps in the four-step principle, and therefore we do not have a clear picture of the needs for rebuilding or building new infrastructure. One needs to ensure that the infrastructure already in place is used in an efficient manner, says Kristofer Odolinski.«
This report is published within the framework of the SNS research project Sustainable Urban and Rural Planning.