MR Carlo Borghini stepped down from his role as executive director of the Europe’s Rail joint research undertaking on March 1. Borghini was appointed in February 2016 in the early days of Shift2Rail, guiding the work of Europe’s first cross-industry railway research programme as well as the transition to its successor, Europe’s Rail, which formally started work in January.

Borghini leaves Europe’s Rail in rude health. There are 26 founding members, including the European Union, covering around 80% of the European industry, which began work on six flagship projects within the Innovation Pillar in January. There is also a Deployment Group, and the System Pillar, which aims to define the functional system architecture of the future European railway that the new technologies and processes will deliver.

More than 200 people drawn from the members of the System Pillar Consortium are working on this element for the next five years. Each person dedicates a third of their time to Europe’s Rail. Crucially, Borghini says they are influential people within their respective organisations, working not in research and innovation, but in systems, commercial, or operations departments with the authority to make decisions that will accelerate deployment of new technologies and working practices. There is also support from the very top of these organisations for the programme’s objectives.

“If you introduce a piece of new technology inside this very complex system, and it remains at the local level, you don’t see the benefits.”

Carlo Borghini

“The commitment from the CEOs comes because they have many expectations of the current programme to produce things that will help them to improve the results of their own companies,” Borghini says. “This is why the six flagship projects have a deadline of 2026. Because we want to show that it is coming.”

This culture of cross-industry collaboration is in stark contrast with the situation when Borghini was appointed in 2016. Borghini was an outsider, coming to rail from the aviation industry, and he admits there was tension in the early days. He says there was a perception of rail as a strong and professional but closed community with a long history, which he says to a certain extent was limiting its capacity to step outside of established know-how to look at how it might improve the workings of the overall system.

Rail is regularly labelled as a slow innovator. However, Borghini says he quickly found that this was not entirely the case. “The problem was that there was a piecemeal approach to innovation and adoption of new technologies, so it was not visible,” he says. “If you introduce a piece of new technology inside this very complex system, and it remains at the local level, you don’t see the benefits.”

He also found that a largely national rather than cross-industry or European approach was taken to innovation with a lack of integration within the programme.

“The major change started to happen once we started to go in depth inside the system to start to look at it,” he says. “Clearly, collaboration with the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), and the European Commission (EC) has been fundamental because research and innovation is not capable of doing this by itself.

“We realised that we don’t do research and innovation only because we want to explore new ideas, but to really push the boundaries and go beyond the regulatory framework, discussing with the commission and ERA about how the framework can evolve.”

For example, work on ERTMS Level 3, including moving block and ATO, within Shift2Rail’s Innovation Project (IP) 2 evolved to include work on IP5, which was focused on freight, and eventually work on another project outside of Shift2Rail. Equally, the Digital Automatic Coupler (DAC), while solving safety and resourcing issues by eliminating the need for the manual coupling of freight wagons, is “an enabler with potential to fundamentally change the freight business,” Borghini says.

Among the improvements at Europe’s Rail compared with Shift2Rail, which with strong industry representation was technology-led, is the greater involvement of operators and infrastructure managers. Borghini says this improves the prospects for deploying new technology and getting better value for the taxpayers’ money that has funded its development.

However, more work is still needed. For example, Borghini says priority should be given to shifting from “a deployment patchwork to consistent, coherent European deployment” where national plans align. Equally, there needs to be greater adoption of automated operation and a change from an industry that updates by upgrading its hardware.

“I hope that in the future, if they need to evolve they will upgrade the software,” he says.

The high regard in which Borghini is held by his peers was reflected in a special presentation to mark his departure during the European Railway Award ceremony held in Brussels on January 31. Mr Philippe Citroën, director general of the European Rail Industry Association (Unife), described Borghini as a true ambassador for the rail sector and praised his work to bring once disparate parts of the industry together under the shared umbrella of railway research and innovation.

Borghini is set to become assistant secretary general of Nato, one of eight, with responsibility for the executive management portfolio including the Nato 2030 reform programme. He is clear that his successor at Europe’s Rail must have their own style but that the role will demand that they continue to be an ambassador for rail. Appointing his successor will take around a year and Borghini expects that it will be a much sought-after position.

Borghini says that he shares his colleagues’ passion for the rail sector. While not an engineer, he was keen to learn about and experience the railway system, to understand its strengths and the weaknesses that the European research programme aims to address. “I think they widely accepted me and welcomed me because I showed passion for what the sector is doing,” he says. Indeed, Borghini has always been an honest and frank contributor to industry debate, and it is this enthusiasm that the sector will miss.