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Conquering barriers to cross borders

Posted: 28 December 2008 | | No comments yet

Crossing borders is a rather simple action performed by millions of Europeans on a daily basis; be it for studies, business or pleasure. A substantial number of travellers rely hugely on rail to take them over the border; further North, South, East or West. Hopefully, for the peace of mind of the traveller, he or she will never know the amount of effort that goes into this ‘simple’ operation, allowing for this often seamless cross-border trip.

Crossing borders is a rather simple action performed by millions of Europeans on a daily basis; be it for studies, business or pleasure. A substantial number of travellers rely hugely on rail to take them over the border; further North, South, East or West. Hopefully, for the peace of mind of the traveller, he or she will never know the amount of effort that goes into this ‘simple’ operation, allowing for this often seamless cross-border trip.

Crossing borders is a rather simple action performed by millions of Europeans on a daily basis; be it for studies, business or pleasure. A substantial number of travellers rely hugely on rail to take them over the border; further North, South, East or West. Hopefully, for the peace of mind of the traveller, he or she will never know the amount of effort that goes into this ‘simple’ operation, allowing for this often seamless cross-border trip.

Both road traffic and air traffic have for decades enjoyed a mutual recognition process for the authorisation of placing vehicles and aircraft into service. On the other hand, it can be said that the rail sector is experiencing a more tedious difficulty in the opening-up of its historical, political and technical borders.

The railway is the only guided mode of mass transport. Railway vehicles have per se a very strong link with the infrastructure on which they operate. Moreover, the European railway networks which were developed during the 19th Century, were initially country specific and national networks prevailed far more in those days than any joined-up European one.

National solutions were thus built by national engineers, who further reinforced the technical barriers when modern electric feeding and signalling systems were developed during the 20th Century. These two elements help to explain the current situation vis-à-vis European railway networks (the plural is unfortunately not a mistake) with different gauges, different power supplies and control systems, and extremely diversified national technical and operational rules for the assurance of safety. And even if things are improving, it is still by and large the case today.

It is still the case today!

As a consequence, a locomotive authorised in country A could not be authorised for being automatically placed into service in country B, without further technical checks by the authorities of the latter country. And even with the goodwill of the authority of the third country, the authorisation could often take several years, due to many factors such as the translation of technical files, the repetition of tests and the lack of knowledge of the other country’s rules and ways of working.

The delay in placing vehicles into service has naturally had an impact on rail traffic development for both passengers and goods. For instance, it has been evaluated that improving the cross-acceptance of rolling stock materials – starting with locomotives – would result in cost reductions of approximately €400 million over the next 15 years.

This constraint on international operations has become more and more stringent since both passengers and goods are increasingly crossing borders – due to a result in successful European integration.

In order to meet this challenge, the European Union has started a profound transformation of the railway system in order to increase interoperability of the rail system. One pillar is constituted by the Interoperability Directives (part of the ‘second railway package’) which paves way for a fully interoperable ‘target system.’ This ‘target system’ is described by the Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSI), drafted by the European Railway Agency (ERA) with a very strong involvement of all representative organisations of the sector. TSIs apply to rolling stock, infrastructure, control command systems and operations and any new ‘subsystems’ have to be certified compliant before being put in service.

Meanwhile, the industry has initiated bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements aimed at regionally facilitating cross-acceptance of railway vehicles, compliant or not with TSIs, running on infrastructure that is itself seldom compliant with the relevant interoperability specifications.

The first example was the agreement in June 2005 between France and Germany at the initiative of the two national industry associations. The latest similar achievement relates to the Rotterdam-Genova corridor for which five countries (NL, DE, AT, CH, IT) have signed a memorandum of understanding. These examples demonstrate that by classifying the national rules against a common checklist and thereafter establishing the correspondence of the rules of different Member States, it is possible to improve the mutual understanding between national authorities and to considerably decrease the burden of certification in a third country, in particular when a TSI is not yet in force.

At European level, the EU is also committed to supporting this process – waiting for the target system to be in place, estimated to be in 20 years or so. By the end of 2006, the European Commission made some proposals for recasting the Interoperability Directive so as to include and generalise the cross-acceptance process. This proposal (together with the amendment of the Safety Directive and the ERA mandates) is now at the first reading phase at European Parliament and Council level. UNIFE has joined forces together with the other sector organisations, CER and EIM, so as to achieve in a rapid manner a text supporting rail transport and in simplifying the authorisation process.

In particular, it is foreseen to give to the European Railway Agency the central role in building a common cross-reference checklist of the different national rules which would be classified in different categories: from national rules deemed to be equivalent between Member States (A category), with no need for any further check, when there is no influence from different infrastructure characteristics to national rules specific to the Member State (C category).

This institutionalisation of the cross-acceptance process at European level would ease its implementation in the future and consequently facilitate the journey of more and more European citizens on board our trains, crossing borders, further North, South East and West.

About the author

Antoine Loraillère

Antoine Loraillère started his career in the automotive industry. He joined UNIFE in 2006, taking the responsibility of coordinating UNIFE’s activities in Standardisation and Regulation fields. Antoine Loraillère is also the Project Coordinator of Modtrain – an EU funded research project.

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