Cross-border rail remains fragmented as EU countries drag their feet on harmonisation

Cross-border rail remains fragmented as EU countries drag their feet on harmonisation

EURACTIV — 2024-07-05

Land transportation

EU governments’ efforts to harmonise rail rules across the EU have been slow and uneven, according to a new report by the EU agency for railways (ERA), resulting in cross-border incompatibilities that are hampering rail use.

European countries historically built their own railway networks and chose equipment and standards that were not compatible with their neighbours’ trains and tracks. As a result, the continent’s rail system is now disconnected and fragmented.

Brussels is trying to fix this and is developing ‘technical specifications for interoperability’ (TSI) – harmonised rules which, when implemented, will ensure uninterrupted cross-border traffic on the European rail system.

However their adoption is slow and uneven, and non-adoption is common, as member states keep filing derogation requests to the Commission.

One of the big problem zones for rail is the fragmentation (…) into national systems, and this (.) contributes to the relatively low modal share of rail (in) cross-border transport,” said Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director of ERA at the report’s presentation on Tuesday (2 July 2024).

A key focus is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which establishes a single signalling and speed control system. This is crucial for the interoperability of EU rail.

In creating a safer, more economical and interoperable network, we need to immediately prioritise the harmonisation of ERTMS (..) operational rules, and we will work closely with ERA to help achieve this,” Enno Wiebe, Director-General of UNIFE, the association of train builders and suppliers, told Euractiv in written comments.

ERA’s report found that the deployment of this system has been slow and uneven among member states, with the train control system deployed across circa 13,700 km of EU railway lines.

This is far from the target set in EU legislation, which says that 57,000 km of core rail corridors should be ERTMS-equipped by 2030.

The report points to high costs as a key reason for the delay. However, for UNIFE, the non-deployment of the ERTMS is also costly.

According to Wiebe, “in research published earlier this year, we found that too many differences in ERTMS (..) operation and technology used from country-to-country does have an impact on costs.”

Europe has had success cleaning up national rules in other areas of the rail sector. As part of an ongoing effort, the number of rules concerning the approval of locomotives and carriages has significantly decreased.

Recent reforms allow train-makers to apply to ERA for a single authorisation that will allow their locomotive or carriage to operate in all 27 countries of the EU.