Transport ministers must seize the chance of a better rail safety directive

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

A one-size-fits-all approach to new rail safety proposals would be inappropriate and potentially dangerous – far better to seize the low-hanging fruits that would accrue from a truly European solution, argues Libor Lochman.

Libor Lochman is the executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), which brings together more than 80 main railway undertakings and rail infrastructure managing bodies of Europe.

The progressive establishment of a European railway area without frontiers requires united action to harmonise technical regulations, particularly those covering interoperability and safety aspects, which require the highest levels of oversight. Nowadays the National Safety Authorities (NSAs) are in charge of procedures for placing in service any part of the railway system, whether vehicles, infrastructure and energy components or signalling systems.

For cross-border operations, a vehicle needs to be authorised in each member state in which it operate. NSAs must issue to railway undertakings (RU) the part of safety certificates valid throughout the EU (the ‘part A’), as well as the portion valid for a specific member state (‘part B’). The applicant has to prove that he is using an appropriate Safety Management System (SMS), and the certificate confirms that a RU is capable to operate safely on a given network.

The various authorisation and certification procedures in the member states are long-lasting and seriously hamper the free and competitive movement of passengers and goods across the Union by rail. Today, more than €1.2 billon-worth of vehicle assets are awaiting authorisation, illustrating the urgent need to reduce administrative burdens for all actors in the railway sector.

The average time-to-service of EU rolling stock is more than two years – during which, the huge investment it represents does not give any return to the investor. That’s why procedures linked to safety and interoperability must be streamlined.

The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) calls for a European Railway Agency (ERA) that will act in future as the EU’s single railway authority and as the ‘one-stop-shop’ for issuing vehicle authorisations, safety certifications, and trackside authorisations for the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).

Other tasks should be conducted by ERA, such as classifying and rationalising national rules, establishing and maintaining European registers, and giving standardisation recommendations. Surely, these duties need to be performed in close cooperation with NSAs, especially when assessing their compatibility with the remaining national rules?

The general agreement reached by the European Council earlier this year on the Interoperability Directive is a move in the right direction. On 10 October, the European transport ministers will be asked again to reach a general agreement on the rail Safety directive, assigning the ERA the role of the EU’s single railway authority and one-stop-shop for safety certifications.

These tasks would be performed in close cooperation with the NSAs. We look forward to seeing a majority of member states converging on this idea, which will help the sector’s growth. Of course, strengthening the ERA’s role must not take place at the expense of safety systems. Infrastructure managers and railway undertakings should establish their own safety management systems to ensure that railways can achieve at least the Common Safety Targets, and conform with safety requirements in the Technical Specifications for Interoperability, and ensure that relevant parts of the Common Safety Methods (CSMs) and notified rules are applied.

The rail sector has agreed on the need to standardise safety management systems. Infrastructure managers and RU’s need careful instructions that allow them to comprehensively reflect on the contents of their SMSs, and not simply tick pre-cooked lists of multiple-choice answers.

A harmonised and uniform, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for the SMS contents would be inappropriate as the circumstances, the scope and business arrangements are different for each actor and could not be properly reflected in one standard.

A bad reform could well risk reducing the overall safety level of our railways.

There are low-hanging fruits that the Council must not miss: the rail sector can make quick efficiency gains if only broad support for a truly European solution can be found from enough member states. We are confident that the European Parliament, which is discussing the directive in parallel, will go in the same direction, making an early agreement possible not only on rail interoperability and safety, but on the whole Fourth Railway Package’s Technical Pillar.

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