‘Compensate rail freight operators for ERTMS installation to avoid a reverse modal shift’
A new view on the rollout of ERTMS is needed, with more consideration for freight operators, Hans Willem Vroon of rail freight industry organisation RailGood advocates in this piece.
Preparations for the roll-out of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) on parts of the Dutch mixed rail network are in full swing. The digital ERTMS will gradually replace the national train protection system ATB from 2028 onwards. ERTMS has been operational on the Betuwe Route freight line since 2008. It is being implemented in a different version (Baseline 2) than on the mixed network (Baseline 3). This means that ERTMS locomotives that were already equipped with ERTMS before the Betuwe Route implementation must be upgraded again in 10 to 15 years time, in addition to the ATB locomotives that also have to be converted.
Benefits and costs of ERTMS
In 2019, the Dutch government decided on an implementation strategy of ‘ERTMS only’, whereby rolling stock is converted first and only thereafter the infrastructure. ERTMS in the infrastructure is installed in stages and ATB will be removed on those sections of track. On railway lines not yet equipped with ERTMS, the trains will use the existing ATB.
Financially, the Dutch roll-out strategy is very favourable for the Ministry of Infrastructure and infrastructure manager ProRail, compared to a dual rollout of ERTMS, which for example Germany has opted for in the Rhine-Alpine Corridor. With this approach, the track is equipped with ERTMS next to the national train protection system. Consequently, locomotives with national train protection systems do not need to be converted to ERTMS or replaced. This avoids high costs for carriers and rolling stock owners.
If the unprofitable part of the implementation of ERTMS is not compensated, transport will become more expensive. Although half of the upgrades and retrofits of freight locomotives for ERTMS are subsidised by the EU/Netherlands and 90 percent of the prototyping, an unprofitable share of a few hundred million euros remains for the rail freight operators. On top of that, for rail freight transport there are almost no benefits from the Dutch ERTMS roll-out.
Furthermore, it will take almost 28 years before ERTMS is rolled out across the entire Dutch railway network. It is therefore all but certain that by the time ERTMS has been fully implemented, it will already be outdated. Secondly, rail operators are forced to drive for a long time on ATB sections with locomotives equipped with both ERTMS and ATB, which means extra costs for transporters. This also applies to the Dutch sections of European rail freight corridors, such as the railway lines via the Bad Bentheim border crossing to Germany and in the Amsterdam-North Sea Canal area, until well after 2030.
In a price-sensitive market like freight transport, in which margins are small, ERTMS means extra costs for operators, a shift of cargo to the road (‘reverse modal shift’) and to foreign ports and inland terminals and a brake on the development of the sector in the Netherlands. And this at a time when shippers and ports want to transport more goods by sustainable rail freight, meaning it is very undesirable for society.
Compensating freight operators
For two reasons it is reasonable and fair for the Dutch government to compensate the rail freight operators for the unprofitable part ERTMS given the considerable extra operating costs for the freight operators caused by government policy. Firstly, because the Dutch government also fully compensates the rail passenger transport operators for the effects of the introduction of ERTMS. Secondly, because the Ministry of Infrastructure and ProRail benefit financially from the ‘ERTMS only’ roll-out strategy of the infrastructure and dual equipment of the locomotives.
It is fair to use part of that financial benefit to compensate rail freight transport in the Netherlands as well. This can easily be achieved via compensation for the extra costs of the conversion and replacement of the locomotives for ERTMS based on the train kilometres that are made on Dutch territory from the moment the locomotive with ERTMS baseline enters service until March 2031.
Harmonisation of ERTMS with neighbouring countries not guaranteed
Freight transport by rail in the Netherlands is 90 percent international and 90 percent of it passes through Dutch-German border crossings. It is still uncertain whether Dutch and German ERTMS will soon be fully harmonised and interoperable. The latter means that a locomotive that has been approved for ERTMS in Germany will also be fully approved for ERTMS in the Netherlands without additional approval costs and time. Operational harmonisation of user processes and regulations must also be ensured.
Harmonisation is a major concern because rail infrastructure managers generally think and act infra-centralised and with the national goals in mind. The lack of harmonisation threatens the achievement of the main goal of ERTMS, namely the integration of national rail markets into a Single European Railway Area. A single European railway area that is sustainable and efficient, offers more benefits to users and supports inclusive growth in the EU. This will strengthen the social, economic and territorial cohesion of the EU. For all other modes of transport, such a barrier-free European area has been in place for decades.
Concerns about the reliability within ERTMS
Based on the experiences with the Dutch Betuwe Route, rail freight operators have concerns about the reliability of the ERTMS system. It is still uncertain whether ERTMS suppliers will deliver and guarantee a reliable system. Independent and effective chain management to continuously improve the reliability and interoperability of the ERTMS system is still lacking.
More vertical steering of the chain with its various and partly international players is needed. In the event of a failure of the ERTMS system, the ERTMS-only choice of infrastructure no longer provides a ‘fallback’ option to handle train traffic with restrictions, as is currently the case under ATB. As a result, the impact of failures is considerably greater than is currently the case on the mixed rail network.
Revision of the course
RailGood, a Dutch industry organisation for rail freight transport, recently drew pressed upon the importance of this matter with the Ministry of Infrastructure, the ERTMS rollout programme and the Lower House, and requested a reassessment of the Dutch approach to the ERTMS implementation. This in order to ensure a competitive rail transport that incentives shipping companies to make more use of the railways.
While there is still time, there is a need to adjust the course of the ERTMS programme to realise a commercially sound implementation of ERTMS in rail freight transport. This will also enable rail freight transport to realise the socially desired growth and modal shift. The costs and benefits of the ERTMS implementation must be divided more fairly. Do we opt for a EuropeanRTMS implementation that makes rail transport more competitive, or for an ExpensiveRTMS with a smaller market share for rail?
Want to hear the latest updates about ERTMS? Join us at RailTech Europe, where the first day of the conference (21 June) is dedicated to the Digital Railway. There are also free workshops at the exhibition, also on ERTMS topics.
This article first appeared on Dutch sister publication SpoorPro.nl