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Brussels, 27 January 2011

Rail safety: Commission requests Belgium to ensure full independence of authorities

The European Commission has requested Belgium to ensure that the rail safety authority and the accident investigation body are fully independent from any railway undertaking, in accordance with its obligations under EU law. The Railway Safety Directive requires rail safety and accident investigation authorities to be fully independent so that they can function in a totally objective and impartial manner and so best protect the safety of rail passengers and personnel. The Commission's request takes the form of a reasoned opinion under EU infringement procedures. If the Belgian authorities fail to inform the Commission within two months of measures taken to ensure full compliance with the Railway Safety Directive in this respect, the Commission could refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.

The EU rules

The Railway Safety Directive (2004/49/EC) aims to ensure the safety of rail transport by guaranteeing that safety procedures and measures are transparent, proportionate and non-discriminatory. To this end, the Directive requires Member States to set up an independent national rail safety authority and accident investigation body. The safety authority issues safety certificates to railway undertakings and safety authorisations to infrastructure managers. It also supervises their safety management systems. The accident investigation body investigates serious accidents and incidents, draws lessons to be learned, and recommends, where appropriate, safety improvements to the national safety authority.

The reason for today's action

Personnel employed by the Belgian national rail safety authority may at any time re-join the incumbent railway undertaking (NMBS/SNCB). Likewise, this possibility is given to the members of the Management Board of the Federal Department of Mobility and Transport. The Commission considers that this situation compromises the independence of the safety authority and of the accident investigation body and is in breach of Belgium's obligations under the Railway Safety Directive.

The practical effect of incorrect implementation

Failure to ensure full independence of the safety authorities in Belgium results in potential conflicts of interest between the supervisors and those supposed to be supervised. This not only infringes the principle of non-discrimination, but could possibly lead to less than effective accident investigations and safety supervision, thus potentially endangering rail passengers and personnel.

For more information on EU infringement procedures, see MEMO/11/45.

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