Rail needs to break down the frontiers

Rail needs to break down the frontiers
29 September 2017

Imagine asking motorists to change their tyres whenever they cross a national border. Or expecting bus operators to wait several years to establish which roads their new fleet will be allowed to drive on – and then require them to pay for information about bridge heights along those routes. But such is life in Europe’s rail industry. Far from being a seamless network – a single, interconnected mode stretching from Lisbon to Moscow – the reality of European rail is more a patchwork of national systems that, for generations, have developed in accordance with their own rules and regulations, which have been run by powerful national monopolies, and which, naturally, utilize a range of incompatible technologies. The result is an industry that, with some justification, can be accused of inefficiency, high costs and protectionism. A sector where innovation has often foundered in the face of complex technical and bureaucratic barriers. For those who work in it, or serve it – let alone those who use it – the industry can test people’s patience.

Slow change coming

In the late 1980s – to its great credit - the European Union set out on the long journey to bring change to the sector. Various reform packages have been introduced over the past 25 years, each one helping to lay the foundations of a more efficient, borderless and competitive rail system. Central to this are consistent technical standards across rolling stock, track and communications technology. The process is ongoing. Just last year, agreement was finally reached on a number of measures to further liberalize the European market - such as the expectation of competitive tendering for the right to operate domestic passenger services in each territory. But agreement was achieved only after more than five years of negotiation, objection and eventual compromise between member states. In other words, it has taken until 2016 for the European rail industry to accept, at the very least, the concept of open competition in the operation of services.

But herein lies the main problem. Although policymakers undertake the painstaking process of building consensus and forging agreements, true transformation will still require the full co-operation of governments, incumbent companies and a workforce that is devoted to deeply ingrained procedures.

For example, at the heart of plans to develop a single European railway is ERTMS – essentially a common system of signalling and control that will enable trains to cross national borders without, as they do today, being required to have the specific onboard technology and qualified drivers for each national signalling system they encounter.

But despite it being more than 25 years since ERTMS was launched, only one country, Denmark, has begun the process of converting its entire network. In that time, the technology underpinning ERTMS has been pulled in different directions as each country imposes local amendments and variations, challenging the very concept of a common standard.

A dose of radicalism

The industry needs to get better at working together. And fast. Competing modes such as automotive and aviation have accepted the need to break with long-established business models to meet the changing needs of society. The rise of the low-cost air carriers, investment in fuel efficiency, the emergence of autonomous vehicles – these are all the result of sectors acknowledging that the way things used to be done should not necessarily be the way things will continue to be done. Collectively, the rail industry has proven ill-equipped to digest large-scale change. It is still too fragmented, too inward looking. It needs to work together to solve common problems. It should see liberalization as a positive change. It should welcome fresh thinking and the odd dose of radicalism. Or risk being forever stopped at the border to change tyres.