EU coordinator: ERTMS roll-out too slow and too expensive
The roll out of the European safety system ERTMS is happening much too slowly and costing too much money. A shift in mentality is required, in which the sector adopts flexibility and prepares for change with a new system. This was the view outlined by Karel Vinck, EU coordinator for the ERTMS programme, during the UIC rail conference in Milan last month.
The ERTMS system is the basis for digitalisation of the railway, stated Vinck. Once ERTMS has been rolled out, other technologies can be connected to it. As an example, the EU coordinator mentioned the Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system. ATO is a technology that facilitates self-driving trains and allows trains to closely follow each other, thereby increasing track capacity.
Migration of safety systems
According to Vinck, the biggest problem is migrating the current safety systems to ERTMS. “It is happening much too slowly. I want to make a plea to all stakeholders: the shorter the migration process, the better.” The EU coordinator named two conditions that need to be met to accelerate the project. The first is the technical specifications that can ensure that ERTMS is an inter-operable European track system. The second is to attract private investors that can pre-finance the projects.
Libor Lochman, Executive Director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), asserted that the roll out needs to happen ‘as quickly as possible’. However, in Lochman’s view, inter-operability remains a problem. The ERTMS systems are not sufficiently aligned internationally, and moreover there are still differences on a national scale. “We must move from a heavy financial burden to a financing programme to get the ERTMS system on board trains. If the systems on the train are inter-operable, we can take further steps to make ERTMS more similar on an international scale.”
Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of the European Union Agency for Railways, underlined that the rail sector is subject to strong competition from other modes of transport. Just like road and air transport, there needs to be one standard safety system for the railways, which in Doppelbauer’s view is ERTMS. “ERTMS has the potential to remove all the technical obstacles in the world. Furthermore, standardisation will ensure a reduction in costs.”
Doppelbauer stated that though a conclusive business case has been formulated at the European level, the problem is that member states require individual business cases. “It is a challenge to migrate over twenty different safety systems in Europe to one single system.” In a report at the end of last year, the European Court of Auditors asserted that the lack of individual business cases means that many infrastructure managers and rail operators are hesitant about investing in the safety system. The European Commission should therefore make conclusive business cases together with each member state.
During the conference, concerns were also expressed about the next proposal from the European Commission for a Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the period January 2021 – 31 December 2028. Part of this involves redefining the financing of large transport projects. It is feared that the UK’s departure from the EU will have consequences for the ERTMS programme’s budget.
MEP Massimiliano Salini indicated that the European Commission is currently looking at other financing options for the ERTMS programme. “CEF and EFSI are perhaps good alternatives”, he asserted. The transport budget Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) is part of the current MFF. MEP Wim van de Camp already emphasised that it is possible to further expand this fund. Another funding option is the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI). The EU provides loans via the EFSI and subsidies via the CEF. Mixing these financing forms is being considered at the EU level.
Unife’s Director General Philippe Citroën said that the rail sector must ‘fight’ for the ERTMS budget. “It is of great importance that we get support from the European Commission and the member states.” He believes that ERTMS is the ‘cornerstone of digitalisation’ in the EU.
Faster roll out
Alberto Mazzola from Italian railway network company Ferrovie dello Stato (FS) said that the ERTMS system must be rolled out in the next seven to ten years. “If we continue at current speeds, it will take two hundred years to roll out the system. We need to do some self-reflection, as it can’t go on like this. The ERTMS system is for forty years.”
The rail sector must look for a party that wants to invest in the system for the next forty years. FS has found two insurance banks that want to put money into ERTMS, and has also made a proposal for European money to be invested. “The intention is that we receive money from the European Union that we pay back with track access charges. Operators that have not installed ERTMS on their rolling stock will be fined.”
“Everywhere in the EU, rail operators say: you are asking us to waste money on rolling stock that we cannot use. Within seven to ten years, we want to offer them a system, and they will not have to pay until the system is in place. Once ERTMS has been installed, they will benefit from it. It is important to find a financial instrument that can provide finance in advance.”
According to Mazzola, the proposal serves as input for the European Commission for the next financing programme, which can ensure that the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) can be further scaled up.