February 10, 2016

Is technical interoperability an impossible dream?

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WHILE the European Union's desire to create a single market for rail seems to be finally making headway with the Fourth Railway Package expected to be adopted soon, the implementation of ERTMS across national boundaries which would simplify cross-border rail operations is making very slow progress due to its complexity.

"I am fully convinced that by March the full package will be adopted," Mrs Violeta Bulc, the European transport commissioner told delegates attending the European Railway Agency's (ERA) conference on moving towards the single European rail area staged in Luxembourg in late November. Bulc said the Fourth Railway Package will result in a 20% reduction in time to market for new operators by eliminating red tape and the numerous barriers to entry which exist today. It will also produce a 20% saving in both time and cost for the introduction of new rolling stock by streamlining the certification process.

Achieving such savings will help to improve rail's competitive position, where its market share in most of Europe is at best stable and at worst declining, as ERA's executive director Mr Josef Doppelbauer pointed out at the conference. "Bus and air cost around half that of rail, and many railways suffer from bad customer satisfaction. This has led to a market share problem." Doppelbauer noted rail's share of the European passenger market has been declining for the last 15 years and is now at around 6-7%, while railfreight has a 17-18% market share which is stable if not declining. "We must understand the situation we are in and take action," he said.

The different signalling systems in European countries are a major barrier to market opening and the competitiveness of rail. The introduction of ERTMS has been a cornerstone of Europe's ambition to streamline cross-border rail operations since the 1990s. But it is easy to forget that the original intention was to create a standard signalling and train control system which would be overlaid on national systems so that trains would only need two on-board signalling systems.

Unfortunately, while ERTMS was being developed, train operators ordered large numbers of multi-system passenger trains and locomotives often with multiple signalling systems designed to operate in several countries so that by the time ERTMS was available commercially it was seen as yet another signalling system to be squeezed onto trains and locomotives which were already packed with equipment. At the same time, manufacturers tried to develop their own versions of ERTMS while infrastructure managers requested national variations, and incompatibility issues arose with each generation of software.

"We have replaced around 20 national signalling systems in Europe with 50 non-interoperable dialects of ERTMS, something we should not be very proud of," Dopplebauer said last year.

Hopefully things will start to change now that ERA is the system authority for ERTMS and it is intent on securing one set of specifications. ERA has published the specification of Baseline 3 release 2 as planned and has finalised a draft report on the strategic roadmap for ERTMS specifications which will be presented to European Union (EU) member states this month. "We will integrate their remarks and then publish it officially as the reference for delivering the agreed managed innovation," Mr Pio Guido, head of ERA's ERTMS unit, told IRJ.

"We need discipline - the specifications for ERTMS must be enforced," Doppelbauer says. "Based on a stable specification, the supply industry must commit to full implementation for the on-board system."

This cannot come soon enough as the experience on the ground leaves a lot to be desired for the cross-border implementation of ERTMS as two of our articles this month highlight. The complexity of introducing ERTMS across borders is mindboggling, and even then there is no guarantee that it will work, as Luxembourg Railways has discovered.

There also needs to be a cull of national train operating rules, many of which are obsolete and the remaining rules should be harmonised. But it is huge task, as Bulc revealed. "There over 11,000 different national rules," she said at the ERA conference.

Thankfully, a start is being made in some countries, but it is far from simple as Mr Laurent Cebulski, authorisations director with France's railway safety authority EPSF, explained in Luxembourg. "In a perfect world we would remove all national differences, but it is a matter of cost. Legacy is a real issue in the deployment of European rules - I don't know how many rules we have in France."

Mr Libor Lochman, executive director of the Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Managers (CER), says that national rules should be notified so that nothing is hidden. "We have ETCS dialects because of national rules, and there is always an attempt to twist ETCS rules to comply with national rules," Lochman says. "Rather than modify ETCS, which is the road to hell, we must get used to the new system."

ERA certainly has a tough job ahead of it.

David Briginshaw

David Briginshaw joined IRJ in 1982 as associate editor, and was appointed editor-in-chief in 2001. He has travelled the world extensively interviewing many of the CEOs and senior managers of the world's railways and transit systems which has given him an in-depth knowledge of the global railway industry.

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