EUROPE’s vision for a Single European Rail Area dates back as far as the early 1990s. The First Railway Directive, which was approved by the European Community in August 1991 and came into force in January 1993, established the legal framework to break down the traditional national boundaries to rail operation and open up the network to competition.

Subsequent railway packages were introduced in 2001, 2004, and 2007 to enhance the legislation’s effectiveness, reinforce liberalisation, and to overcome the technical barriers to interoperability.

However, in 2018, Europe is still a long way short of delivering a truly open and interoperable rail network: ERTMS has not yet become a continent-wide universal signalling system allowing seamless operation across borders. Many national markets also remain closed to non-incumbent operators.

The Fourth Railway Package, which was approved by the European Parliament and European Council in December 2016, is the latest legislative attempt to deliver the vision for a Single European Rail Area. And for many, it is the final opportunity for Europe to get it right.

HerikHololeiWhile the final terms of the legislation did ultimately bow to pressure not to “unbundle” train operations from infrastructure management, allowing some countries including the key markets of Austria, France, Germany, and Italy to retain infrastructure and operations within the same holding company, it has legally-bound member states to open their markets for competition.

For commercial passenger services the deadline for implementing the legislation is December 2019 while competitive tendering for Public Service Obligation (PSO) rail contracts is obligatory in the majority of cases from December 2023. Critically, the technical pillar of the legislation expands the role of the European Union Agency for Railways. The Agency is set to become the central authority for signalling and EU-wide vehicle authorisations and operator safety certification.

It is hoped that this will eliminate the delays and red-tape surrounding certification in Europe, increasing the attractiveness of the sector. And while Mr Henrik Hololei, director general at the European Commission’s Directorate- General for Mobility and Transport (DG Move), says it is too early to say whether the package is a success, he is keen for member states to embrace the directives, adding that there must be an emphasis on enforcing this process.

“We cannot fix a previous package with a new package,” Hololei told IRJ in Brussels. “We have to focus on enforcement and implementation.”

Hololei also cites four major barriers which have in the past prevented member states from delivering the Single European Rail Area: mental, technical, administrative, and market.

“The sector has not been thinking European,” he says. “It has been too member-state centred and this is not going to be viable in the future.”

He adds that the problems with interoperability caused by the prevalence of national signalling systems and other technical issues remain, along with administrative problems. There are 11,000 national rules in Europe many of which could be replaced on a European level, and Hololei says many member states can do more to align their rules and standards with the rest of Europe.

DG Move is active in attempting to rectify these problems, as Hololei was keen to point out.

Along with the Fourth Railway Package, the commission is continuing to push Europe-wide standards to supersede national regulations through the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSI), which are developed by the EU Agency for Railways. It is also providing significant financial support for key rail projects and initiatives.

The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) for 2014-2020 allocated almost two-thirds of its total €24.05bn budget for transport, to rail projects, with 96% of this money now spent. For Hololei, this demonstrates the commission’s commitment to rail as its preferred target for investment in its infrastructure policy, which is largely dictated by the development of the TEN-T corridors.

Game changers

Hololei describes these as real “game-changers” and a “great success” in supporting coherent European infrastructure development, including the deployment of ERTMS on the core network. But with the corridors demanding more than €750bn in investment up to 2030, he says grant funding will not be sufficient to provide a leg-up to all of the required projects before the deadline.

“It is a lot of money but again we have to be more creative when it comes to the sources of finance,” Hololei says. “The grant financing in the future is going to be limited. Projects are going to need to get financing through the private sector, through leveraging guarantees, through the investment banks. It is going to be more challenging but it is not impossible. At the end of the day, you don’t do it for the corridor or the project, you do it for the better connectivity of Europe, for its citizens and businesses.”

Rolling out ERTMS will take up a substantial chunk of these funds. The platform’s problems with gaining acceptance in Europe have been well-documented. In particular, the expense and difficulty of retrofitting existing infrastructure is apparent in the statistic that ERTMS is now active on three-times as many lines outside than within Europe.

Yet there is widespread belief that the 2019-2023 ERTMS European Deployment Plan has the universal support it requires to finally deliver success. This was certainly Hololei’s observation from the Agency’s ERTMS conference held in Valenciennes on November 15-16. “For the first time I see a real commitment in the sector to deliver,” he says.

The plan outlines clear targets for deployment up to 2023, when it will be revised and reissued with new targets to complete the rollout between 2024 and 2040. It also sets out five principles for this process:

  • trackside equipment should be interoperable and compliant enabling trains to run on Baseline 3
  • standardisation and greater commoditisation of onboard units in order to reduce costs
  • more efficient testing and validation processes in order to offer greater time and cost certainty in deployment.
  • deployment of a reliable and consistent software upgrade and maintenance programme, and
  • the commission should support member states to address bottlenecks which are hindering deployment.

“If we don’t deliver this time, then we won’t deliver at all,” Hololei says. “I am pretty confident about that. It is an excellent opportunity, but it is also the last opportunity.”


Similarly, he says rail must show that it is delivering in general. After all, in order to make the case for more EU funds to support its future objectives, the sector needs to demonstrate that it is offering tangible benefits to passengers, the environment and Europe in general.

“More than 70% of the CEF money has gone to rail,” Hololei says. “If the rail sector doesn’t improve significantly, then you have valid questions coming from European taxpayers and those who contribute to the EU budget of whether this money is well spent. The rail sector has to demonstrate that it is.”

In order to achieve this, Hololei believes the rail sector needs to do a better job of selling itself. This includes emphasising its environmentally-friendly credentials, its role in decarbonising transport and the positive effect this will have on society.

“I believe that this message has not come through sufficiently,” Hololei says. “We are trying to make the message all the time, but it is not necessarily the same message that is understood and is passed on in the member states.

“Rail should play to its strengths. There is a good story to tell, especially with electrified lines, and I believe that the change in mentality can also be achieved, or it can help to change the mentality towards rail.”

He adds that the sector should emphasise improving the attractiveness of its services by enhancing punctuality, reliability, and train frequency.

For Hololei, alongside the KPIs, the most visible sign that rail is delivering is an increase in the share of rail freight. However, while he believes that rail should account for around 20% of all freight traffic in Europe, it has fallen from a 13.6% share 20 years ago to 12% today.

He says this figure reflects the unpredictability of the service as a whole. With European companies increasingly demanding just-in-time delivery, Hololei says that many logistic firms cannot rely on rail freight operators to deliver their goods on schedule, obliging them to use other modes.

As well as predictability, track access and the prioritisation of passenger trains has proven a major problem to rail freight operators trying to run reliable services. However, with the growth of digital technologies, Hololei says the sector now has an opportunity to cast this aside. Indeed, he says digitalisation is the enabler to better predictability on Europe’s railways as a whole and can deliver improved intramodality in general.

“Rail needs to embrace the opportunities digitalisation provides,” Hololei says. “One of these, which is absolutely essential, is real-time information about train movements and arrivals. It makes it easier to do path management at stations, and is something that has always been the Achilles heel of the rail sector in comparison with other transport modes.”

Automated operation of main line services, which can deliver improved operational efficiency, is for Hololei a natural step forward in this process. Urban rail applications, where trains can operate at slightly less than two-minute headways, are already showing what is possible. However, as main line operators begin to transition to automatic train operation, Hololei cautioned against labelling them as driverless services. He believes that some level of human interaction is always going to be required, much like it is in the aviation industry.

“The pilot isn’t flying the plane, the computer is flying the plane, the pilot is just checking that there are no anomalies,” Hololei says. “But you need them in the cockpit. It is the same for the train. You can have a fully-automated train but you will need certain human oversight to take place.”


Much of the technology that will deliver digitalisation will come from the European rail industry, and many solutions are already available and are being honed to meet operator and infrastructure manager needs. Significant research and development efforts are also underway to harness the next generation of solutions that deliver predictive and automated operations.

DG Move is supporting this innovation process through the Shift2Rail joint research initiative and Hololei reports that he is pleased by the programme’s progress; both in the partnerships that are emerging from what is proving an important forum for manufacturers, infrastructure managers, operators, and regulators, and the new technologies being developed.

Ultimately, he feels that Shift2Rail will provide the European rail industry with a new generation of products which it can export to the rest of the world, reinforcing Europe’s status as the home of railway technology. He adds that it is very likely that the commission will provide financial support to further innovation initiatives in the rail sector in the next financing period.

Hololei also welcomed recent consolidation in the rail market and the emergence of “stronger global players from Europe” as “exactly what is needed” to compete effectively, particularly with the rise of Asian players in the market. However, he emphasises that European companies require equal access to markets around the world, and admitted that the commission should do more to support them.

“We need to insist on reciprocity in other markets, we just cannot allow others to invest in Europe while allowing these markets to remain closed to us,” Hololei says. “We have been too timid in the past and we have not sufficiently defended the European interest. It is partly because some of the member states think that they can forge better deals when they go alone. But they can’t. The EU is strong when it speaks with one voice.

“Many of our third country partners just love the situation where they can divide-and-rule. And when they see the EU split, they can offer some deals to some operators or producers from one member state against the other. That is where we become weak. If we use the entire toolbox we have, and we have a lot in the toolbox, we shouldn’t see rail as separate from anything else. We have the train, energy, the whole transport toolbox, and we should deploythat in a rigorous manner.”

As it stands, the 28 EU member states are set to become 27 in March 2019. Brexit is set to dominate the headlines and debate throughout 2018 as the clock continues to tick on Britain’s exit from the European Union on March 29 2019.

For Hololei the process still offers too many questions. However, he did paint a difficult picture for Britain’s rail sector post Brexit, noting the sector’s reliance on 40,000 nationals from the other 27 member states, and the future of manufacturing in the country.

“I wonder if there will be significant rail manufacturing in the future when their main market is mainland Europe?” Hololei says. “Nobody is going to win out of this situation.”

Of course, the Brexit story still has some time to run, and there are sure to be many twists and turns as 2018 unfolds. It is also set to be a big year for European railways as the Fourth Railway Package takes hold, and Europe continues to push the ERTMS deployment plan. For Hololei, it is time to emphasise urgency, both from member states and railways. This he says will give rail the best platform to compete both in Europe and around the world.

“Now is the moment,” he says.