PUBLIC demand to address global climate change gained new momentum in 2019. Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion action group led calls for immediate action from the world’s leaders to finally solve the climate crisis.

With nearly 400 all-time temperature records broken in summer 2019 alone, the 2010s was the warmest decade on record. At its current rate the planet is set to warm by 3-4°C by the end of the century, leading to a devastating outcome for much of the human race.

These discussions were crystallised at last month’s COP25 conference in Madrid where the president of the Marshall Islands told delegates that with tides rising the island nation was in a “fight to the death.”

Transport inevitably draws significant ire as the only industrial sector where emissions are continuing to rise. Rail contributes 3% of these emissions but is responsible for 9% of all journeys. Electrified railways are considered a means to meet people’s insatiable desire to travel but at a reduced cost to the planet.

Mr Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, International Union of Railways (UIC) director general from 2009-2019, deserves a lot of credit for advocating rail as part of the solution to the climate crisis.

Rail was very much an outsider at the start of the decade. However, UIC-led programmes such as the Train to Copenhagen in December 2009 and activities at Rio+20 in June 2012 helped to promote rail’s cause to the extent that it is now very much on the inside of the debate; Loubinoux sat on the UN’s High Level Advisory Group for Sustainable Transport. He also helped rail, as a sustainable transport solution, to receive support from key financial institutions such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and European Infrastructure Bank.

The latest step was taken at COP25 with a relaunch of the 2015 commitment to reduce the rail sector’s carbon footprint. The Railway Climate Responsibility Pledge requires UIC members to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 rather than the 75% reduction in emissions outlined in the 2015 agreement.

The UIC’s importance as a representative body for the global sector is in stark contrast with the association’s position at the start of Loubinoux’s tenure. An internal crisis in 2007-08 led many to question whether the UIC would remain a viable international organisation. The administrator appointed to sort out the mess, restructured the association, and as the new director general, Loubinoux was tasked with bringing the membership back together and reaffirming the UIC’s global status.

Loubinoux’s successor, Mr François Davenne, who officially took up the role in June, is keen to continue the successes of his predecessor. Davenne says rail’s recognition as a solution to the climate change conundrum is a major opportunity for the sector, and one that he is keen to reinforce.

“We have been confronted with virtual competition from automated cars for the past five years,” Davenne says. “However, it seems the development of automated cars will take a lot longer than expected, maybe up to 10 years. We definitely have an angle here for further developing railways.”

“People who live in cities are more and more confronted by congestion and pollution and the invasion of public spaces by private cars.”

François Davenne, director general of the International Union of Railways (UIC)

The other major opportunity for Davenne is the growing recognition of the importance of door-to-door mobility. Davenne was speaking to IRJ at the World Congress on Railway Research (WCRR) and highlighted the emphasis on Mobility as a Service (MaaS) by German Rail (DB), French National Railways (SNCF), and East Japan Railway (JR East) during the opening plenary session.

“People who live in cities are more and more confronted by congestion and pollution and the invasion of public spaces by private cars,” Davenne says. “Solutions need to be found through a common understanding between railway companies and the actors in public transport. That is the big opportunity.”

Inevitably rail faces challenges to achieving this, notably the mode’s inherent inflexibility and the lack of willingness or capability to cooperate with neighbouring networks as well as other modes.

“I think we are living in some kind of paradox,” Davenne continues. “We have nationally integrated networks but when it comes to building international networks for freight and passenger we have a huge interconnection difficulty. We still don’t have a true European network despite the efforts of the European Union (EU) and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA).

“What is necessary in the coming years will be to think about a global rail network. Not point-to-point services, then the station question, and then the issue of interconnections with other modes, but to think globally, like how we think of a data backbone.”

Technical role

Davenne sees the UIC as playing a prominent role in delivering this global network, not through political lobbying, but as the “back office” of the world’s railways.

Traditionally the bastion of railway standards, Davenne says he is keen to reaffirm the technical role of the UIC. He highlights the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) project, the association’s Merit’s international timetabling database, international standards for braking, and regulation of General Contract of Use (GCU) between wagon keepers and train operators as examples of UIC-led practical solutions which are breaking down traditional barriers. However, he says the general picture remains a little blurry.

“We are very keen to be more assertive in terms of technical marketing,” Davenne says. “Today it is still relatively difficult to understand how our International Railway Solution (IRS) standards [a framework of documents which combine solutions to support the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the railway and railway services] are organised. Next year work will begin to make the structure of our standard easier to understand.”

Davenne says the plan is to introduce an operations strategy for the UIC in 2020 as the foundation for this technical marketing effort. The idea is to develop a forum at the system level for members to offer feedback to enhance the standards they rely on every day.


UIC also hopes to increase engagement with North America’s Association of American Railroads (AAR) and Federal Railroad Administration. This is particularly important in regions such as the Middle East which are developing passenger railways to UIC standards but using AAR standards for freight infrastructure. “There are a couple of issues that they need to solve, for example the transport of dangerous goods, where the regulations are not always compatible,” Davenne says.

The benefits of the UIC’s global approach is apparent in one of the railway world’s most problematic and hotly debated projects: the rollout of ERTMS.

While ETCS, the platform’s train control element, has adopted a system approach and struggled to gain acceptance in Europe with more lines operational outside of the continent, GSM-R, the telecoms part, has been integrated as a UIC standard and widely adopted worldwide - more than 100,000km of railway now uses the technology.

Current joint initiatives - Open CCS Onboard Reference Architecture (Ocora) and Telecom Onboard Architecture (Toba) for onboard ETCS, and Reference CCS Architecture (RCA) for infrastructure - reflect the desire for a common vision for ETCS and Davenne says the UIC’s work on FRMCS could prove the benchmark for the effective delivery of a future train control system. He says the strategy, which involves working alongside telecommunications standards organisations, including ETSI and 3GPP, is emphasising the development of an off-the-shelf product.

“We would like to use this momentum to develop a forum with the manufacturers where we can all speak together to align as closely as possible the implementation of ERTMS,” Davenne says. “This is not an attack on the Technical Standard for Interoperability (TSI) but it is saying below the TSI you need to have dialogue between the operator and the manufacturer in order to overcome potential parameter difficulties.”

Another area set to reinforce this newfound emphasis on technical standards is the UIC’s work with the International Association of Public Transport (UITP). Several joint programmes are underway under the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the two organisations in April 2018, including integration between modes at stations and developing an integrated vision of MaaS. A common MaaS platform is expected to be announced by the two organisations later this year.

“Solutions need to be found through a common understanding between railway companies and the actors in public transport. That is the big opportunity.”

François Davenne

The two associations have closely aligned their efforts with regards to climate change and were together at COP25 alongside the International Transport Forum (ITF). For Davenne, if rail and public transport is to succeed in reducing transport emissions it is critical that the associations promote both modal shift and rail capacity expansion.

UIC joined forces with the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and International ransport Forum (ITF) to promote public transport at COP25 in Madrid.

Davenne says railways must work harder to ensure modal shift to rail is desirable. From a technical perspective to achieve an expansion of capacity, he says it is all about thinking digital - whether this is Automatic Train Operation (ATO), which Davenne sees as useful for an impending shortage of train drivers, or the development of digital twins to support infrastructure management.

Davenne says this concept is advancing rapidly, with particularly impressive progress in Switzerland. As part of the Smart Rail 4.0 project, SBB is set to use digital twins to model the railway system as it targets a 30% increase in capacity without any investment in physical infrastructure.

With multiple railways working on these platforms, Davenne says the UIC will emphasise standardisation and an integrated approach and encourage the sector to speak with a single voice.

“We are quite modest at the UIC,” he says. “We should not be the driver of this because it is outside of our remit - in Switzerland they have 120 engineers working on this, in Germany it is a similar number and the same in France. All of these people are searching for the right concept. What we can do is to work together to make it first a European concept and then perhaps a global concept.”

Davenne’s emphasis on the UIC’s modesty is reflective of the person himself. While Loubinoux‘s gregarious approach was successful in restoring the UIC’s reputation, his successor’s down-to-earth style might be equally effective at reaffirming its status as the railway’s “back office” during the 2020s.

In an era where new technological advances are driving rapid change in the world of railways, making sure they are all working from the same play book has perhaps never been so important.