On track towards a common European signalling system

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A well-functioning railway system is highly valuable to European citizens and economies. But the different signalling systems used in EU member states can hamper the process of integration, argues Danish Transport Minister Henrik Dam Kristensen.

Henrik Dam Kristensen is the Danish minister for transport.

In Denmark, we have worked proactively to modernise our railways. We are the first EU member state to fully implement the new common European signalling system standard, ERTMS, on the entire rail network. In future, ERTMS will be implemented on the major railway corridors in Europe to the benefit of cross-border rail transport.

ERTMS is high on the agenda of the Danish EU Presidency. The Danish Presidency and the European Commission will co-host a high-level conference on ERTMS on 16-17 April in Copenhagen. The conference will focus on how to efficiently implement a common railway signalling system in Europe.

The European railways were once characterised by national networks, on which goods and people mainly were transported within separate countries. Rolling stock was fitted to national standards, and often trains would not be able to cross borders without difficulties.

Fortunately, the situation is much improved today. Over the last 20 years, the EU has worked towards developing an integrated railway system. Large investments have been made in European railway infrastructure and in creating better cross-border connections. A more competitive market for railway services, common rules and technical standards have helped to create a European railway network that is modern and interlinked.

However, the absence of a common signalling system standard across Europe remains a major challenge.
Today, more than 20 different signalling systems are in use across Europe. Separately, they ensure that the capacity on individual parts of the European railway network is utilised in a safe and efficient manner. However, the differences hinder the development of a more fully integrated European railway system.

A concrete example of the challenges brought about by the multitude of signalling systems is the Thalys trains, which provide international rail services between Cologne, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. A total of six different signalling systems coordinate traffic on the network used by Thalys, which requires their trains to be fitted with expensive additional technology. Elsewhere, locomotives are often exchanged at border crossings in order to provide international rail services.

Ultimately, the different national standards are bad for the competitiveness of our railways and counteract ambitions of promoting them as a valuable alternative to road transport. I believe it is time for us to take a real step forward and utilise the benefits of ERTMS.

ERTMS will offer a common standard for traffic management across the European railway network and put us on track towards a more fully integrated railway system in Europe. It is the most advanced signalling system currently available and will create more precise and efficient use of the capacity on the railway network.

Doing away with national standards will facilitate a smooth and uncomplicated passage of trains across borders and help make the railways much more competitive as a means of international transport. The Eurostar lines between London-Paris and London-Brussels have already proven that there is a real potential for international passenger transport by rail.

In terms of freight, approximately 75% of the goods transported in Europe are handled by road freight. For us to realise the ambitions of a modal shift towards greener forms of freight transport it is vital that the railways become more competitive. The ERTMS will hopefully become a milestone in promoting international rail freight.

At the Transport Council meeting on 22 March, the EU transport ministers agreed to a new set of guidelines for the Trans-European Networks (TEN-T), which set the framework for EU funding for infrastructure. As a part of these guidelines, member states are to implement ERTMS on the core railway network in the EU by 2030. This is an important decision that will facilitate the implementation of ERTMS across Europe.

As the first member state in Europe to have initiated a full implementation of ERTMS, Denmark has concrete and positive experiences to share. The ERTMS conference, co-hosted by the Danish EU Presidency and the European Commission, on 16-17 April will provide an important platform to discuss our experiences and future challenges in implementing ERTMS. I look forward to some interesting discussions, which hopefully can help push ERTMS even further along.

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