New tunnel safety regulations in Italy highlight EU interoperability problems

A new fire regulation in Italy can complicate the existing connections for international operators to the southern European peninsula. Although vital for a safe and resilient rail transport, these new regulations at the moment present a concrete obstacle for some train companies that now need to refurbish or buy new rolling stock.

On the 31st of December 2023, a new Italian safety regulation for existing tunnels and rolling stock will enter into force. The deadline, originally set on the 8th of April 2021, has been extended in order for infrastructure managers and railway undertakings to recover the time lost during the pandemic years. The Italian ministry for transport and infrastructures issued the decree back in 2005, making it mandatory to adopt the updated specifications within 15 years for existing rolling stock and tunnels. New rolling stock and tunnels have had to comply with regulations respectively from 2011 and from when the decree was approved, but the rules will soon change for existing vehicles and tunnels as well.

More stringent safety design parameters

The new measures introduce design rules to guarantee an increased safety in case of incidents within tunnels, which represent a huge portion of the Italian network. For the rolling stock, the main additions that the decree introduces are the mandatory sprinkler systems for all carriages and traction units, smoke detectors and design processes that used fire retardant materials exclusively. A further mandatory rule requires the rolling stock to be able to move for an additional 15 minutes from the fire outbreak at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour. This would possibly allow a train to exit the tunnel and mitigate the consequences of the incident.

For the infrastructure it means providing tunnels with secure escape routes, emergency lighting and communication systems, smoke extractors as well as resilient electrical systems and accessible entry points for rescue units. Furthermore, for tunnels longer than 2,000 metres, fire resistant materials and sprinkler systems must be installed. For longer tunnels of 5,000 metres and over, an additional helipad and triage area for rescue operations has to be provided as well.

Railway companies pay the price of new regulations

Almost all the Italian land borders follow the alps, making it necessary to dig tunnels and conquer the heart of the mountains to get to other countries. Therefore, for internationally operating actors using rolling stock bought prior to 2011, the end of 2023 marks a hard deadline for running services to Italy or not. Although vital for a safe and resilient rail transport, these new regulations are at the moment a concrete obstacle for some train companies that now need to refurbish or buy new rolling stock.

The French SNCF already commissioned the installation of sprinkler systems on its TGV fleet for the Paris-Milan connection back in 2020, with the delivery of the refurbished trains at the end of the same year. Specifically affected by the regulations is ÖBB, which runs numerous services to Milan, Rome and Venice, and is the only cross-border sleeper train service provider in Italy. Kurt Bauer, head of long distance passenger services at ÖBB, spoke about this problem at the recent RailTech Europe 2022 conference, lamenting the difficulties of running trains in different countries that adopt different rules.

The implications for the Austrian train company are now twofold. On the one hand, the ÖBB is introducing new Nightjet new rolling stock from 2023, which will respect the new regulations. And on the other hand, it will need to refurbish its existing rolling stock in order to have more available carriages and manage the services in a flexible way. This will cost the company a considerable amount of money and will put to hold part of the fleet with consequent disruptions.

The myth of interoperability

RailTech Europe 2022 was also a moment for rail stakeholders to reiterate the necessity to have a common European vision for the rail sector. Italy is not an isolated case, but an example of the complex regulations that vary from country to country. In the 2020 report about interoperability in the EU rail market, 745 national operation and safety rules were identified among member countries in addition to the interoperability specification (TSI) in place.

Although the trend for yearly notified national rules is going downwards, this can give an idea of the complexity with which rail enterprises need to deal with daily. The EU continues to push for eliminating national rules as much as possible, but the process to reach an interoperable network is a long one. The significant number of national rules still in place hinders effective cross border traffic, which can push passengers to other modes for their mobility needs.

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Author: Filippo Borgogno

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