Digitalisation is going to play an important role in helping railways to carry more passengers and freight without having to invest huge sums of money in the time-consuming process of laying additional tracks and expanding stations.

Time is not on our side to start reducing global carbon emissions so it is imperative to find quick solutions to enable rail, by far the most environmentally-friendly form of powered transport, to increase its market share by encouraging a shift of freight and passengers from road and air to rail.

Mr Henrik Hololei, director general of the European Commission’s transport directorate, DG Move, pointed out at the CCRCC2019 ERTMS conference in Valenciennes last October that the commission will continue to support the rail sector but the momentum to embrace digitalisation and attract passengers must come from the railways themselves.

“Rail is very well placed to play a major role in reducing the environmental footprint of the whole transport sector, which is responsible for one-quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions and one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise,” Hololei said.

“The rail sector is very energy-efficient and largely electrified,” he continued. “This is why European strategies for CO₂ reduction see a lot of potential in supporting further railway development.”

But Hololei wants rail to become much more efficient and increase its relative weight. “We need a stronger, better integrated rail sector, which acts as a backbone within a well-connected, interoperable Single European Transport Area,” he told delegates.

“Some retrofitting tenders have received either none or just one bid. Where companies do bid, the price for doing the work is often eye-watering.”

However, rail is some way from achieving this. The Shift2Rail research programme is helping to driving technology forward, as are universities. There is also a push by Europe’s major railways and manufacturers to adopt new technology through digitalisation and the use of Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. But there needs to be much better cooperation between organisations to accelerate development and achieve common goals.

Would it not be better to have one European project to develop automatic train operation on main line railways? Pooling resources and sharing development costs would surely produce results more quickly.

It is also interesting to contrast the rapid implementation of CBTC on metros, which is achieving impressive reductions in train headways, with the painfully slow rollout of ETCS in Europe.

While metro lines are usually point-to-point and are operated by one type of train, which makes the installation of CBTC far simpler than ETCS on complicated networks with multiple train types, there is another difference. Metros are integrated railways with one owner. Conversely, the separation of infrastructure from train operation in large parts of Europe combined with an increase in the number of operators using the network has over-complicated the installation of ETCS.

As we report in this issue, separation makes the decision making process convoluted and very difficult to achieve equitable benefits for infrastructure managers, which will reap most of the rewards in terms of lower operating and maintenance costs, and operators who face high initial costs for only marginal and long-term benefits.

Attempts are being made to get EU member states to set up ERTMS investment funds to be administered by their infrastructure mangers who will be expected to pass the money on to train operators without preference. This is likely to be difficult to achieve in countries such as Germany, France and Italy, where the infrastructure manager is owned by the incumbent national railway.

There is also a huge range of attitudes to ETCS in Europe from enthusiastic support, through grudging acceptance, to indifference. At least outright hostility has disappeared, so we are making progress.

To make matters worse, most signalling companies do not want to participate in retrofitting locomotives and trains with ETCS as it is regarded as an extremely complicated and time-consuming activity. Some retrofitting tenders have received either none or just one bid. Where companies do bid, the price for doing the work is often eye-watering.

The EU is calling for a huge increase in funding - up to €5bn - to be provided mainly by member states to speed up deployment by accelerating the retrofitting programme.

However, it is difficult to see how providing extra funding will overcome the reluctance of signalling companies to do the work, unless the work becomes so lucrative that companies will be falling over themselves to bid for contracts. Is this a good use of taxpayers’ money?

There is also a shortage of railway signalling engineers. CCRCC conference delegates put forward the idea of forming a pool of ERTMS experts and setting up an ERTMS academy to increase the number of specialists available. Some of these people could then be deployed to carry out retrofitting in depots.

There needs to be much better cooperation within the railway industry and a greater willingness to do everything possible to resolve these issues as quickly possible. Rail transport has the chance to play an important role in reducing carbon emissions, but it will not succeed without common purpose, cooperation and strong leadership.