Sustainability Is the Next Challenge in a Complex Rail Scenario

Josef Doppelbauer, Executive Director at the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA), explains the complex European railway scenario, taking into account different aspects – from the technical to the cultural one.

Digitalisation can help overcome issues, offering an opportunity to improve rail operator efficiency and traveller experience. Digital technology offers travellers better information availability and an increased efficiency for rail operators, who now have more tools to monitor the network.

FINCONS Group | Sustainability in Rail
Digitalisation can help to optimise and simplify network management

You mention a number of challenges that stand between the ERA and the achievement of a unified European rail network. These range from cutting down national red-tape to overcoming technical issues and even language barriers. Can you tell us how you hope to master this complex scenario?

Trains definitely encounter more barriers than other modes of transports when moving across different countries. For example, a lorry driver from Ukraine can easily go to Portugal without knowing the language, only with his basic knowledge of traffic rules and regulations. A train driver from Ukraine, on the other hand, is immediately blocked at the border with Poland by the different track gauge and the strict language and operator requirements.

Also, safety standards have developed over time as a reaction to each country’s own experience with  accidents. Given that not every country has had the same experiences, they have thus developed different rules that then also combine with different initial mindsets that need to be harmonised to guarantee a frictionless railway traffic in Europe.
For example, in the underwater tunnel between France and the United Kingdom, two different fire protocols coexist, as one country requires passengers to be locked inside the train in case of a fire, while the other requires them to be evacuated as soon as possible.

Another example is the train end signal. You may have noticed that the end of a train is always marked, either by a red light or by a reflective plate. Before the ERA address this issue, there were over twenty different ways to signal the end of a train, now we are down to two, and in 2019 we set out to get rid of the taillight and only keep the reflective plate.

Language also constitutes a great barrier. The same lorry driver from Ukraine doesn’t necessarily have to speak with anyone to get to Portugal, and if needed, a couple of English sentences will probably be sufficient. In most member states, train drivers are required to master a fairly high level of the language, a level that is fairly difficult to obtain. We are currently working on technical and organisational solutions to make it easier, but in my opinion, we should strive to create an international language for rail operations, mirroring the one that already exist for aviation and maritime communications.

What contribution do you think digital technology can bring to the achievement of a more sustainable European rail system?

I think the introduction of digital technology has several advantages for the rail system.

I would like to start from the customer perspective. The most obvious advantage for travellers is information availability, as they can easily access information about their train connections, any possible delays and alternative routes when needed. Incidentally just before this meeting I was looking up train connections from Valenciennes to Zurich, and even though the proposed itinerary requires me to change five trains, it’s still useful to be able to plan this over a single platform. Another advantage of digitalisation is that it is becoming easier to buy tickets and compare prices online, even if this service is still not at the same level as the ones available for purchasing and comparing airline tickets.

Digital technology for operators means being able to manage the network more efficiently, as it allows them to monitor a trains’ position, to calculate alternative routes, to reschedule trains, to optimise traffic patterns by delaying certain trains and prioritising others and to be more resilient. There’s only one caveat: even the best digital technology cannot replace the 500 metres of missing track between here and Belgium. It remains imperative to have the basic infrastructure in place and only then digitalisation can help to optimise and simplify network management, as well as facilitating ticket purchase for customers.

Download the complete interview.

This article was originally published by FINCONS Group.

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