The role of the European Railway Agency for ERTMS – answering the challenge

Posted: 10 December 2010 | | No comments yet

Railways epitomise the triumph of engineering. From the early exploits of technological progress in the Victorian age, to the most recent speed records, from the age of steam power to the age of power semiconductors, engineering prowess has always been closely associated with the railway world.

Engineers have been successful in developing and perfecting the railways to a remarkable extent: historically this was done for integrated railways within the national borders.

Railways epitomise the triumph of engineering. From the early exploits of technological progress in the Victorian age, to the most recent speed records, from the age of steam power to the age of power semiconductors, engineering prowess has always been closely associated with the railway world. Engineers have been successful in developing and perfecting the railways to a remarkable extent: historically this was done for integrated railways within the national borders.

Railways epitomise the triumph of engineering. From the early exploits of technological progress in the Victorian age, to the most recent speed records, from the age of steam power to the age of power semiconductors, engineering prowess has always been closely associated with the railway world.

Engineers have been successful in developing and perfecting the railways to a remarkable extent: historically this was done for integrated railways within the national borders.

This was also the case for the signalling and communication systems: they have been effectively developed to provide the railways with highly optimised, safety critical systems, perfectly adapted to national environments, national rules, national networks and national fleets.

But from today’s European perspective, with the progressive elimination of national barriers and liberalisation of transport, this local optimisation has brought about barriers to interoperability and an inefficient, fragmented market.

ERTMS, the European Railway Traffic Management System, is the European answer to this challenge: a major European industrial project for the signalling and communication systems, which sees the involvement and support of all major players from the suppliers industry and the railways.

ERTMS has been spearheaded by the European Commission, who sponsored the early pilot tests, fostering cooperation among interested actors, and provides the three pillars to support the system: the legal provisions enforcing the obligations to install the system, the financial contributions to its deployment, and the definition of the specifications.

The specifications, comprising the ETCS and the GSM-R system, are enforced as European legislation, part of the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSI) for Control Command and Signalling, published in the Official Journal of the EU.

The deployment of GSM-R in Europe is a success. Today, it has been rolled out over 65,000km of track in Europe. The networks in five countries are already in operations: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

ETCS is progressively being deployed in Europe: today, it is in operation at 300km/h (e.g. Spain and Italy) and on freight lines (e.g. in the Netherlands), successfully supporting dense traffic (e.g. in Switzerland) and international operations (e.g. between Belgium and the Netherlands), with more than 10,000km contracted and/or in service.

This growing return of experience from implementations and commercial service must be coordinated and analysed to ensure that the ERTMS standards are maintained consistently, and if necessary adapted to the growing needs of the railways.

With the creation of the European Railway Agency, the role of the system authority for the ERTMS specifications has been transferred to the Agency.

The European Railway Agency was established in 2005 with the objective1:

to contribute, on technical matters, to the implementation of the Community legislation aimed at improving the competitive position of the railway sector by enhancing the level of interoperability of railway systems and at developing a common approach to safety on the European railway system.

The Agency cannot directly modify the European legislation: its role is to prepare, in cooperation with the Sector associations and with the National Safety Authorities, new and updated legislative acts and recommend their adoption to the Commission, after a positive opinion from the Committee of Member States.

In the case of ERTMS, the sheer volume of the specification documents to be maintained requires the coordinated efforts of suppliers and railways, contributing the specialised expertise and know-how of different groups of experts.

The TSI CCS in fact makes reference to nearly a hundred documents defining the ETCS and GSM-R standards; all of them are available for download from the website of the Agency.

To manage the process in an effective way, the Agency has defined the Change Control Management process and established a number of working groups with the representatives of the sector organisations.

The ETCS specifications

The ETCS specifications currently in force – known as ‘2.3.0d’ – are in effect the result of this process, implemented in cooperation with, and with the support of, the sector. In 2007, the initial deployment and commercial use of a complex, software-based system like ETCS enabled the detection of a limited number of corrections and clarifications necessary in the European specifications. The Agency, after extensive dialog with the sector, taking account of the possible impact on existing projects and of the interoperability constraints, recommended the revised ETCS specifications. The Commission Decision 2008/386 made this version the legal reference. The successive Decision 2010/76 added the relevant test requirements to the set of specifications.

The active contribution of UNISIG is essential to produce and update the detailed specifications for ETCS, in particular those pertaining to technical interfaces.

The coordination with DG-MOVE and the TEN-T Agency ensures that financial support from EU grants contributes to facilitate technical activities and consolidation of specifications, e.g. for the development of software simulators and the execution of laboratory testing.

The Agency also relies on the effective contribution from the ERTMS Users Group, both in terms of technical support and of management of work packages related to the development of specifications, which receive financial support from TEN-T funds.

The Memorandum of Understanding on ERTMS, signed by the European Commission and the sector (CER, EIM, ERFA, GSM-R Industry Group, UIC, UNIFE) in 2008 recognised that the 2.3.0d version of ETCS constitutes the unique technical reference for the interoperable deployment of ETCS in Europe. The MoU also requires the Agency to propose by 2012 an amendment to the TSI CCS to include a limited number of additional functionalities in a new version of the ETCS specifications, called Baseline 3.

The new Baseline 3 will therefore capitalise on the strengths of the 2.3.0d version, proven in use and deployed in commercial service not only in Europe but all over the world. The first step in the development of Baseline 3 is the definition of the System Requirement Specifications (SRS): the Agency is progressively consolidating them in close cooperation with the sector organisations: today the version 3.1.0 is available on the web site of the Agency. By 2012, the final version of the SRS and of all the other documents part of Baseline 3 will be published.

A central requirement for the Baseline 3 is to ensure that trains equipped with the new ETCS version will be able to run on the infrastructure compliant with the current version. The Agency, with the experts from the sector, has defined the technical mechanism to implement this backward compatibility.

The requirements are demanding, and the time plan is aggressive: the status of the progress is regularly reviewed at the meetings of the MoU Steering Committee, chaired by the European Coordinator nominated by the Commission for ERTMS.

The Agency has contracted an external consortium, constituted by CEDEX, TIFSA, DLR, Multitel and Rina, to analyse the SRS, define the system test specifications and help the consolidation for Baseline 3.

The consolidation and validation of the specifications will continue in 2011 and 2012; in this phase, the collective effort of the sector will be essential to ensure that all the valuable feedback from testing and early implementations is consolidated to officially adopt the Baseline 3 with the degree of quality and stability necessary to ensure its successful and rapid deployment.

The GSM-R system

The Agency has completed a review of the current set of specifications, known as EIRENE version 7/15, and the impact of the optional functions on the interoperability of the system, also engaging in bilateral meetings with National Safety Authorities, resulting in a number of clarifications for specific implementations, but confirming the validity of the current GSM-R specifications.

Those specifications will necessarily evolve in the future: to clarify existing gaps and correct implementation issues on the one hand; and to take account of technological progress and the evolution of public standards for mobile telecommunication services on the other.

In October 2010, the European Railway Agency and the International Union of Railways, UIC, signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen their cooperation in the field of GSM-R Specifications.

This agreement aims to ensure that the GSM-R specifications are managed on a European level and in compliance with the requirements laid down by the EU Railway legislation, but also maintaining their worldwide scope on a global level, recognising the technical expertise of the UIC and its role as a worldwide organisation.

As a result, the requirements defined in the current GSM-R specifications will be revised with a view to classifying them into two mutually exclusive categories:

  • Requirements necessary as basic parameters to satisfy the essential requirements of the Interoperability Directive
  • Requirements that are valuable for operators, customers and suppliers in terms of product and system standardisations, and requirements that are applicable for the worldwide system.

The Agency has issued the documents detailing the categorisation of requirements as indicated above, and is organising their discussion with the UIC and the railway sector. Before the end of 2010, the Agency and the UIC will draw up a plan to work in cooperation on the specifications.

The Agency expects that the railways will define their needs in terms of evolution of the GSM-R and formalise it in a manner similar to the ETCS Baseline 3 planning.

Not only technical harmonisation

The standard ERTMS system can be the foundation for harmonised operations, providing homogeneous rules for train drivers crossing the borders, facilitating their training, and optimally supporting them in their demanding and safety relevant tasks.

The Agency is actively pursuing the activities on ERTMS operational harmonisation, updating the ERTMS operational rules, ensuring consistency with the DMI and trackside marker boards, in complete coordination with the working group on TSI OPE.

The most recent result of this work is represented by the ERTMS Operational Rules, published on the ERA website, that are now officially mandated in the revised TSI Traffic Operation and Management recently published in the Official Journal2.

Also harmonise the certification and authorisation

There is a growing consensus that the maturity and suitability of the ERTMS specifications are no longer the issue – in fact, ETCS and GSM-R systems are being requested and installed by railways outside Europe because they offer a modern, standard and cost-effective solution that can be provided in open competition by numerous suppliers.

To reap the full benefit of ERTMS in Europe, it is now necessary to focus on the test, certification and authorisation phases, to ensure a transparent process and avoid unnecessary costs and delays linked to the reiteration of assessments and duplication of tests.

The Agency is fully involved in the efforts of the Commission to clarify the process for authorising the putting in service of vehicles and subsystems, and ensure its harmonised application in Europe.

The European institutions and the railway sector are increasingly looking to the Agency to play a central role contributing to the Community policy for a more competitive European railway system – in fact, a number of new tasks and responsibilities have been defined in the updated Agency Regulation 1335/2008 adopted in two years ago. Notably the Agency is now in charge to support the mutual recognition of the national rules and the associated authorisations to place into service with its Cross-Acceptance Unit. For ERTMS, the Agency is requested to set up an ad hoc working group of notified bodies; “with a view to checking that the EC procedures of verification carried out by notified bodies in the context of specific ERTMS projects are applied consistently.”

In addition; “the Agency shall also cooperate with national safety authorities with a view to checking that the procedures for authorisation for placing in service ERTMS are applied consistently.”

The Agency has started to work on those issues with a cooperation between the units, Cross-Acceptance and ERTMS, in direct contact with the National Safety Authorities involved, in particular along ERTMS Corridors.

The new landscape defined by the European railway legislation defines explicit and separate roles for the Infrastructure Managers, the Railway Undertakings and the National Safety Authorities. The new interoperable system for the European railways is defined, authorised and maintained at European level, but implemented and operated by different actors with different roles, objectives and business plans.

The challenge, to capitalise on the rich experience and knowhow of the railways, and exploit their potential, is to fully embrace the new European regime, and make the transition from what was optimal in the old world (national, integrated railways) to what is optimal in the new landscape.

The European Railway Agency is playing its role in ensuring transparent and accountable European governance for a EU wide system.


1. Regulation 881/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 establishing a European Railway Agency. Article 1.

2. EC Decision 2010/640/EU of 21 October 2010 published in the Official Journal 26-10-2010

About the Author

Pio Guido

Pio Guido is the Head of the ERTMS Unit at the European Railway Agency. He is an electronic engineer who developed his career in Europe and in the USA in the field of automation for industrial control and transport systems. He joined the Italian Railways in 1997. In 2001, he was appointed Deputy Managing Director of the ERTMS Users Group in Bruxelles. He has been working at the European Railway Agency since its initial establishment, in 2005.