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EU funding 'not spent wisely' on high-speed rail network, say auditors

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By Emma Beswick
EU funding 'not spent wisely' on high-speed rail network, say auditors
Copyright  REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski/File Photo

As much as €23.7 billion in European Union funds are "not being spent wisely" on the bloc's high-speed rail network, according to the European Court of Auditors.

Poor coordination between countries building cross-border connections and a lack of governmental accountability are two reasons the report gives for describing the transport system as an "ineffective patchwork of lines without a realistic long-term plan".

"In Europe, we don't have an EU high-speed rail network, but we have a number of poorly-connected national networks," Luc T’joen, lead auditor on the report, told Euronews.

The document took into account roughly 50% of the bloc's network, across ten lines in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Austria — countries that received the highest investment of EU funding for high-speed rail development.

One example auditors drew on was that of the Portugal-Spain Extremadura line, which was planned to connect Lisbon and Madrid.

Despite millions of euros of EU co-funding, the line was considered "too expensive in times of high government debt", which resulted in construction in Portugal starting and the track falling 6km short of the border on the Spanish side, it said.

It was a similar story at several other sites on border towns.

Political considerations

Much of the high-speed rail investment for lines covered in the report was "based on political considerations", according to T’joen.

EU funds are being used but a lack of prior decision-making meant they were not fully exploited.

"The money is there, it's on the tracks," he said. "However, tracks are either being constructed with big delays or they have had huge cost overruns or when they were completed, they were late to be put in use."

Is the network worth the investment?

At an average cost of €25 million per kilometre of track, is there a real argument for developing the high-speed rail network across the bloc?

T’joen said the benefits of the system are numerous, like the time-savings it brings to customers, socio-economic advantages and its environmental performance compared to many other forms of transport.

However, these advantages must be weighed up against limited cost efficiency and low value-added before further EU investment.

Costs could be much lower, according to the report, which said the alternative solution of upgrading existing conventional lines was often overlooked.

It also asserts that high-speed lines were not needed everywhere they have been built — trains were only running at 45% of the speed lines had the capacity for, according to T’joen.

What should the EU do?

"The EU is aware of the situation but they had no legal tools to push member states to do something about it," said T’joen.

To this end, he wants to see more enforceable powers given to the Commission as well as greater powers afforded to EU coordinators working on projects.

"The decision making should be better in the future and we should avoid the kinds of big losses that we are seeing now," concluded T’joen.