February 16 was a cold, snowy morning in Belgium, and in a quiet suburb south of Brussels called Hal/Buizingen, commuters boarded a train writes Brian Denny in the Morning Star. 

Shortly after 8am to go to work. By 8.30am the train had collided with an express train, killing 19 people and injuring 170 others.

The next day Belgian rail workers walked out in protest, because they knew why it had happened. FGTB rail union general secretary Gerard Gelmini said that cutbacks and attacks on working conditions had increased since the European Commission deregulated European rail traffic in 2005.

That year, in line with EU rail directives, the Belgian government split Belgium's national rail network into three separate subsidiaries after it had operated as a single company for 170 years.

Gelmini slammed a "mad rise in productivity," which he said endangered rail workers and the travelling public.

"You can have as much safety and security as you want but it doesn't mean anything if there is insufficient investment in training and decent working conditions," he said.

This tragedy is the latest in a long line of disasters that have occurred in mainland Europe following the EU's mania for deregulation. There has been a succession of major freight train accidents since EU liberalisation in 2006.

On April 26 2008, a runaway Veolia freight locomotive ran through Montauban station at over 60 kilometres per hour.

Without the presence of mind of SNCF staff, it would have struck a crowded regional passenger train.

At Livernan in south-west France, a trainload of tractors hauled by Euro Cargo Rail, a DB Schenker subsidiary, hit an SNCF freight train in May 2009, hospitalising the driver.

"What would have happened if it had been a passenger train?" said Didier Le Reste, French CGT rail union general secretary.

"We fear that people would have been injured or worse."

At Viareggio in Tuscany on June 29 last year, 26 people were injured and 32 people killed in a fireball following the derailment of a freight train made up of LPG fuel tanks.

"The pursuit of profit is leading companies to cutbacks on jobs, working conditions, operational procedures and training," said rail union federation SUD-Rail.

Le Reste said that rail freight liberalisation had provoked the spate of incidents and accidents.

"Railway safety cannot become a variable of neoliberal policies in the name of competition and liberalisation as pushed by the European Union," he warned.

Political pundits once scoffed at such warnings about EU rail directives, but that was a long time ago. That is why around 1,000 transport workers from across Europe protested in Lille in northern France earlier this month against the EU-led privatisation of rail networks.

Rail unions from Belgium, Portugal, Hungary and many other countries gathered outside the headquarters of the European Rail Agency, an EU institution that implements the various EU directives and rail packages that open up rail services to the private sector.

They were joined by French rail workers from the SUD union who were in their seventh day of strike action over the continued liberalisation of the French rail network.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow told the noisy protest that workers were uniting against the systematic destruction of national rail networks, jobs and safety standards brought by EU diktats. "Liberalisation might sound harmless, but we have already seen fatal crashes like the one in Belgium and now there are demands to dilute the channel tunnel's safety rules to allow competition," he said.

"Millions of people across Europe believe that railways should be a public service, not a commodity to be smashed up and exploited by privateers who, ultimately, are only interested in profit.

"Big business and faceless eurocrats are implementing this dangerous experiment without any democratic mandate to do so," he said.

The EU's first railway package in 2001 built on the foundations of EC directive 91/440, which was imposed in 1991 to introduce market mechanisms into rail by requiring the separation of the management of infrastructure and train operations. This process followed a similar pattern to the privatisation of British Rail and the break-up of London Underground.

The second railway package of 2004 accelerated the so-called liberalisation of rail freight services by bringing forward the date for open access to the entire EU rail network for all types of rail freight services.

The third railway package of 2007 made provision for the liberalisation of international passenger services, requiring open access to infrastructure in all EU member states by January 1 2010 at the latest.

A stark picture of what this has led to was painted by Hans Gerd Ofinger, of the German pressure group Railways from Below (Bahn von Unten).

"The process of privatisation started in 1994 when the German state railway was transformed into a stake holding company and split up into 300 subsidiaries," he said.

"The drive for profit has meant that there has been less investment in infrastructure and safety and, as a result, the intercity express trains to Berlin had problems with the wheels and axles.

"The number of jobs has halved since the privatisation started and contract labour is almost slave labour," he said.

"Recently we had a very harsh winter, and it was revealed that a subcontractor hired Bulgarian workers who were paid just two euros an hour to clear the snow from the tracks," he said.

Ofinger observed that Deutsch Bahn was now trying to create a feeling of competition between German and French rail workers as the two countries battle for control of Europe's rail networks.

"They are trying to tell the German workers that the French are their enemies, but what we need are rail networks under democratic control operating on the basis of cooperation not competition," he said.