A seamless train system struggles to gain traction through the EU

Decades after goals were drawn up to create a single rail network in member states, projects lag behind schedule and train transport remains inefficient. 

photo © Petru Stan / dreamstime.com

By Domenic Strazzabosco and Emma Sennels 

For decades the European Union has envisioned an international railroad system connecting the historically and socially intertwined member states, creating seamless border connections as well as convenient and affordable transport for the hundreds of millions within its jurisdiction. 

Various texts and legislation on how to implement a worthwhile system have been proposed since the 1990’s, but over time the union has faced several obstacles including problems with budget, national cooperation and high costs for equipping trains with updated systems.

“If you have what we call Single European Rail Area (SERA), you could have many direct connections without waiting times. You would have more reliable connections,” said Joseph Doppelbauer, Executive Director of the European Rail Agency (ERA), when explaining the benefits of an efficient train network.

The ideal situation would be that all trains would physically be able to run on the tracks of any other member state. 

Rails as a historical matter
A major problem that has confronted the union when developing a single structure for a single European network lies within the historical construction of the railroads. 

When rail was first introduced in Europe about 150 years ago, countries purposely designed their specific rail systems to be different. At the time, varying structures were seen as a way of protecting each independent country. If a bordering country could not run on your tracks, they would have a harder time invading or waging war, explained Henrik Sylvan, the center leader of RailTech and professor at the Danish Technical University. 

As a result of history, there are currently over 20 different national rail systems within the EU, including both signalling and safety operations. Having trains run across borders with these older, Class B systems, is costly because each train must be equipped with each country’s corresponding system. 

A solution to this has been envisioned – the installation of one single signalling and safety system across European tracks, ensuring interoperability across borders.

The most recent piece of directives and regulations approved by the European Parliament in 2016 and titled the Fourth railway package are a series of texts which outline ways to harmonize and revitalize the rail sector, making it more competitive versus other forms of transport. The end goal: finally finish establishing the Single European Railway Area making passenger and freight services more efficient.

The implementation of ERTMS
The most vital factor in completing an international rail area is the full implementation of a new, common signalling system. One system which is able to run on rails everywhere from the United Kingdom to France and Hungary. The system currently being implemented, the European Rail Transit Management System or ERTMS, is set to replace the existing train controls and commands already installed, creating a single standard for all railways in the union.

ERTMS explained: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Xk1JTuN2Mw 

However, even with decades of planning and years of implementation, the union is far from reaching its goals. A 2017 report by the European Court of Auditors, questioning the reality of the management system, found several obstacles inhibiting full implementation of ERTMS.  

The 9 initial track lines to be fitted with ERTMS were outlined in the 2010 Rail Freight Corridor plan. This plan did not include any deployment strategy, instead those coordinating the deployment were responsible for publishing implementation plans and communicating them with the European Commission. (Image from EU Commission) 

The goal for 2030 is to have 51,000 kilometers of the nine core network corridors equipped, but at the end of 2017 less than 4,200 kilometers were completed. The audit also noted that in order for goals to be reached, member states needed to decommission their current systems and use ERTMS as the single signalling system instead of as add-on software. However, the EU’s deployment plan did not outline any way for countries to decommission their systems, resulting in only Denmark voluntarily choosing to solely use ERTMS. 

Mattias Ruete, currently the European Coordinator for ERTMS who has worked with the rail sector for the past 20 years, has noticed a change in the mindset of member states in regard to the system. They have realized that their national systems are becoming obsolete and need replacement.

“Everybody I talk to tells me if they had to decide between others systems on the market, they would go for ERTMS.”

Green indicates finished, while Red and Yellow are under construction, and gray needs completion, showing the patch work like deployment of ERTMS. (Image from 2017 Audit pg. 27

Maurizio Castelletti, Head of Unit for the Single European Rail Area, the agency responsible for analyzing economic questions regarding rail, acknowledged that system development has taken a long time but believes full deployment is necessary. 

“Of course one could say the system is not ideal, but now it’s too late. We can adapt and evolve the system with new releases, making it more efficient.”

A patchwork of railroads

The 2017 audit also found that the ERTMS system was conceptualized and deployed with no estimates on cost or how to fund its entirety. The first legal decisions were made in 1996 but it was not until 2015 that a proper analysis of cost estimate was conducted. 

“The problem is not that simple. It is not a project for one year, not for five or ten. We are dealing with a very large and dynamic system,” said Doppelbauer, when asked how the system will ever be fully implemented without a clear assessment of budget.

Estimates now indicate that the costs for 2030’s core network goals could reach as high as 80 billion euro, while the goals for 2050 could reach 190 billion euro when the entire comprehensive network is supposed to be equipped. 

The audit concluded that less than 5 percent of ERTMS’s total cost was being provided by the EU. Between 2007 and 2020 the EU provided 4 billion euro of the projected 80 billion needed to reach the goals for 2030. This means the remaining money needed would have to come from the member states themselves and outside investors. 

Recently heightened EU-wide debate about the emissions produced by the transport sector also emphasize a growing need for a cohesive rail system.  

“We have a situation with the climate debate where rail is moving into being one of the major modes of clean transport. A lot of hope is being put on rail,” says Ruete.

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