The whole point of ETCS is to simplify the operation of trains across borders by overcoming Europe’s legacy of myriad different signalling systems. The original idea was for ETCS to provide an overlay on national signalling so that trains would only require their own national system and ETCS. However, while ETCS was being developed operators started to equip their trains with multiple national systems to enable trains to operate in several countries, so ETCS ended up being just another signalling system which had to be squeezed on board.

While smaller railways in countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have decided to adopt ETCS nationally either because their existing signalling was life-expired or to improve safety, larger networks have found the cost of installing ETCS nationally prohibitive especially on lines where the equipment is relatively new.

The European Union has mandated the installation of ETCS on new lines where it is providing funding, so newer high-speed lines have ETCS. However, the installation policy differs between countries. Spain, for example, has installed both ETCS and fall-back legacy signalling on its high-speed lines. Italy, on the other hand, has prepared its national network for a switchover to ETCS in the future and has only equipped its high-speed lines with ETCS without a fall-back system.

Nevertheless, there have been some recent achievements. A stable specification, SRS 3.6.0, was adopted the EU’s Railway Interoperability and Safety Committee (Risc) in June 2016. This should help to resolve incompatibility issues between different versions of ETCS. The EU Agency for Railways will get new powers in 2019 regarding the trackside installation of ETCS and vehicle authorisation under the Fourth Railway Package. There is an EU-wide commitment to have 7900km of lines equipped with ETCS by 2019 including crucial cross-border links.

Yet there is clearly frustration in Brussels at the lack of progress in deploying ETCS. As the European ERTMS coordinator, Mr Karel Vinck, put it: “After 10 years, we still cannot show that any part of the European rail network is interoperable.”

Vinck was speaking in Brussels at the Single European Railway Area (Sera) convention on June 20 where he launched a new draft ERTMS Deployment Action Plan. This is an update of the 2009 deployment plan which Vinck says was unrealistic because the deployment period was too long. The new plan will only look five years ahead with clearly-defined objectives. These include achieving interoperable and compliant infrastructure, standardising onboard units so trains can operate anywhere, maintaining the ERTMS specifications consistently and ensuring adequate financing and support.

During the Sera convention Mr Alberto Mazzola, head of international affairs with Italian State Railways (FS), proposed an incentive scheme to accelerate the installation of ERTMS on the TEN-T core network. “We would like to create a win-win situation for all the stakeholders, aligning their interests,” Mazzola said. The cost of installing ERTMS on the TEN-T core network and 50% of vehicles is estimated at around e15-20bn. Mazzola says following discussions with DG Move, the Rhine - Alpine corridor could be used as a pilot project to test ERTMS prior to its implementation on the entire TEN-T core network.

Private capital, with public funding for infrastructure, could help to finance the investment using the European Fund for Strategic Investments (Efsi) as a guarantee. FS says this should make it possible to install ERTMS on infrastructure and vehicles in seven to eight years.

The capital investment would be repaid by operators and infrastructure managers over a 30-40-year period through differentiated track access charges, repayment of loans after the track side installation has been completed, and savings from removing legacy signalling. The model envisages a grace period, during which no fee is paid by operators, to best align ERTMS benefits and costs.

FS believes operators will only find ERTMS worth using once a critical mass of the TEN-T core network has been equipped and it will only be necessary to install ERTMS in a proportion of the EU vehicle fleet, in particular trains running on the core network. Finally, FS says regulatory measures, such as authorisation to remove legacy signalling systems, will be needed.

It is interesting to compare the deployment of GSM-R, the telecommunications element of ERTMS, with ETCS, where GSM-R is now widely used across Europe and serious consideration is being given to its replacement to keep up with the rapid developments in the telecoms sector (page 16).

Consultation on the draft ERTMS deployment plan should be completed in October allowing publication of the final version in November. DG Move and the EU Agency for Railways will monitor implementation through the ERTMS Stakeholder Platform. If it succeeds, then we will finally begin to see the concerted deployment of ETCS in Europe. But if it fails, ETCS will continue to make painfully slow progress and could be sidelined by new technology.