Rail Industry Focus

01.07.15

Start of a long 'psychological evolution' in EU railway interoperability

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 15

Richard Lockett, head of the cross acceptance unit at the European Railway Agency, discusses the challenge of interoperability.

The fourth railway package is a set of aims to remove the remaining barriers to the creation of a single European rail area. However, getting there is taking some time.

As RTM went to press EU transport ministers were meeting to discuss governance and market opening proposals under the fourth railway package’s market pillar. But Anrijs Matīss, the Latvian minister for transport, who chaired the meeting, said: “We have spared no effort working on the market pillar but clearly more time is needed to reach a political agreement based on a wide consensus within the Council.”

Proposals under the fourth railway package include changes to cut the administrative costs for rail companies and make it easier for new operators to enter the market, with the European Railway Agency (ERA) becoming the single place of issue for vehicle authorisations and safety certificates for operators.

Speaking at the Annual Rail Freight Group Conference, Richard Lockett, head of the cross acceptance unit at the ERA, said: “One thing that does make us different from most of the safety authorities in Europe, and the RSSB, is that our core objective is to facilitate and improve the competitive position of the railway sector by enhancing the level of interoperability of railway systems. That is why we’re there.

“We are not there to increase the bureaucratic burden, but are here to make you more profitable.” However, he admitted “we don’t always succeed at that”.

The ERA is in charge of the maintenance of the TSI Control command and signalling, is the system authority for ERTMS, and has been helping member states “clean up” their national rules to help move towards a “one world” approach.

Lockett added that there are significant benefits to interoperability and said that horizontal integration, which has been used in the road and aviation sectors, is a tool for market opening while vertical integration, currently seen used in the rail sector, is a tool for closing the market.

“Not only have we got existing system differences, we also have a very big culture difference,” he said. “Somehow the island mentality in the UK is different from the rest of mainland Europe. But the UK is part of Europe and it needs to be part of the single European railway area, and that requires a different way of thinking. One of the key roles we have is to help member states clean up their national rules on the route to interoperability.”

He added that this has been, and will continue to be, a long-term activity with “one system” network harmonisation expected by around 2050.

However, Lockett noted that a “big change” going forward is infrastructure diversity.

“We are collecting the national rules for each country. Britain has four sets of rules: one for the Network Rail infrastructure; one for high-speed line; another set for the Channel Tunnel and another set for Northern Ireland. That feels sub-optimal,” he said.

“What we are seeing, in contrast to roads and aviation – not just within the UK, although the UK is one of the more extreme examples – is that whenever there is a new project the project managers behind it want to develop a bespoke solution. An example in Europe was the Netherlands where they accidentally ended up with three incompatible ERTMS systems.”

He asked the audience whether they agreed it would be better if Crossrail wasn’t a tunnel that can only be used by one type of rolling stock for only one purpose.

“Half the savings from vehicle authorisation is estimated to come by removing the network diversity,” said Lockett, who then ran through an interesting yet stark comparison of the difference between rail, road and aviation.

“Imagine a road system where those on the continent need two wheels and two sets of pedals, only special lorries were allowed through the Channel Tunnel and each new stretch of motorway was built with different bridge heights, road signs and traffic rules each designed by the project manager,” he said. “Imagine if no-one knew the height of the bridges and you had to pay the infrastructure provider to find out how tall the bridges were, or you needed separate authorisations for different parts of the network.

“Or in aviation, [imagine if] you built 10 planes identical to the ones you bought last week but you don’t know if they will get authorised straight away. You need to design each plane and authorise it for each individual airport. When people invented the A380, all the airports rushed to make themselves compatible; with rail this is a no-no. You have to make your trains compatible with the infrastructure. Or imagine we developed a new European air traffic control system that was different for every country and cost £2.5bn for an authorisation. Railways are that bad.

“We are now, unfortunately, stuck in negotiations on the fourth railway package. I’m not quite sure why railway companies operating all over Europe are fighting to maintain a vertical integration culture.”

He admitted that the industry is still only at the start of a “psychological evolution” but did say that one way to improving interoperability across Europe is by copying the road and aviation model.

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