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14th Aug 2020

Single EU railway signalling system faces delays

  • The EU has agreed to deploy a European rail traffic management system (ERTMS), but implementation remains patchy (Photo: Paolo Margari)

The deployment across Europe of a single European rail traffic management system (ERTMS) is facing delays, the new ERTMS coordinator admitted on Tuesday (26 March) at a conference in the Netherlands.

"Targets are there to be measured. A reality check shows that we are already falling a little bit behind in the first few years," said European Commission official Matthias Ruete.

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  • 'If we were to invent the European railway system [today] and place it in the concept of a single European rail area ... we would be crazy not to use ERTMS,' said European coordinator for ERTMS Matthias Ruete (Photo: Arjan Eising)

But considering the patchwork of railway companies in the EU and the long history dating back to the 19th century, he urged the audience to take a 'glass-half-full' view.

"I'm amazed to see how much in the last years things have actually progressed," said Ruete, a former director-general at the commission's transport department - and European coordinator for ERTMS since January.

"I still see a good trajectory. Yes, we have a problem with planning permissions, local opposition, procurement et cetera, but the vast majority of the lines are under construction. There are technical difficulties to be overcome, but they all seem solvable," said Ruete.

Rolling out a single rail traffic management system across the EU may seem like a technical task that only trainspotters would be interested in - but the issue is key to creating a single European railway area.

The system is needed to create a safe and smoothly operating rail network - a goal that has become even more pressing in the fight against global warming.

While railway travel between major EU cities is much more climate-friendly than flying, it is often not as fast or cheap.

A major issue is that every EU country has developed its own systems, which are often not interoperable.

"If we were to invent the European railway system [today] and place it in the concept of a single European rail area ... we would be crazy not to use ERTMS. Our problem is organising the transition," said Ruete.

Since 2007 until 2020, some €3.9bn from the EU budget has been allocated to help national governments implement ERTMS, according to the European Court of Auditors.

"So far, deployment in the EU is at a low level and represents a patchwork, despite the fact that the ERTMS concept and vision to enhance interoperability is not generally questioned by the rail sector," the auditors said in a 2017 report.

"The current low status of ERTMS deployment may mainly be explained by the reluctance of many infrastructure managers and railway undertakings to invest in ERTMS equipment due to the expense entailed and the lack of an individual business case for many of them," it added.

Promotional video about ERTMS by the European Railway Agency

ERTMS was the main theme on the first day of RailTech, a three-day conference held in the Dutch city of Utrecht which began on Tuesday.

One factor in a delayed deployment is simply that train drivers need to be persuaded to try something new.

Esme Kalshoven is ERTMS programme director at the Dutch railway company NS, remembered their reaction to an ERTMS test phase.

"Not all train drivers were really willing to start in the pilot. But after the step had been made, they were really enthusiastic about driving with the ERTMS," she said.

Also striking was a presentation by the managing director of the ERTMS Users Group, whose railway company members exclusively come from western European countries.

Managing director Michel Ruesen said that he had tried to have "a better connection to eastern European countries", like the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland.

"I must honestly say I'm a bit frustrated about it," he said.

"I think many of these countries are still in a much earlier phase of ERTMS deployment," he said.

An additional problem is that even if railway lines are equipped with ERTMS, that does not mean that the pan-European system is actually used.

Often railway operators still stick to their old system, called class B in jargon.

"They want to have a lot of money from the European Commission for the investment of their new lines, and then they are obliged to install ERTMS, but they normally do that on top of their class B system," said Ruesen.

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