UNIFE: EU Investments for Innovation in Rail Transport

By Tommaso Spanevello, Public Affairs Manager, UNIFE

Research and innovation (“R&I”) represent a vital area of activity that is widely recognised as a strategic priority for the European rail supply industry, which employs approximately 400,000 people all over Europe. According to data compiled by the OECD, our industry currently invests around 2.7% of its annual turnover in R&I activities. With international competition getting ever fiercer, and suppliers in other parts of the world catching up fast, staying at the forefront of research and innovation is absolutely essential for Europe’s rail supply industry to maintain its technological leadership.

UNIFE Public Affairs Manager
Tommaso Spanevello, UNIFE Public Affairs Manager

R&I and innovative technologies have contributed to the continuing growth of the rail passenger market in Europe (including light rail, tram and metro lines). As the association representing Europe’s rail supply industry, UNIFE made a major contribution to the ‘Rail 2050 Vision’, which was published in 2017 by ERRAC – the European Rail Research Advisory Council. This publication stresses that, in order to fully realise the opportunities offered by new technologies, the level of EU and national investment in rail-related R&I activities must be increased. Accordingly, the total amount of funding (from both public and private sources) required for rail- related R&I investments in Europe over the next thirty years could be greater than 250 billion euros.

UNIFE is convinced that rail-related research and technological progress, led by the rail supply industry, would offer the possibility to transform the sector dramatically. Moreover, as ERRAC points out, the future of the rail sector depends to a great extent on its flexibility and its ability to adapt to and incorporate technological advances. In this regard, the importance of continuing the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking (JU) beyond 2020 cannot be stressed enough. Shift2Rail, established in 2014 with a budget of 920 million euros and supported by the European Union in the framework of the Horizon 2020 programme, has brought continuity, stability and a long-term vision to R&I activities in Europe. Through its collaborative research principle, built on an institutional public-private partnership (PPP), Shift2Rail has been able to stimulate the whole of Europe’s rail’s innovation ecosystem – including start-ups, SMEs, larger companies, academics and Research Technology Organisations (RTOs) – to work together on valuable projects that are contributing to significant advances in the development and application of new technologies.


UNIFE has developed an R&I vision for the future Shift2Rail, key-enablers – ranging from automated rail transport, digitalisation and ‘mobility as a seamless service’ to ‘maintenance of the future’ and optimised infrastructure. __________________________________________________________________________________

The increasing need for shared and sustainable transport, together with digital technologies and intermodal mobility solutions, provides a compelling argument for the extension of Shift2Rail beyond 2020. In this context, UNIFE has developed an R&I vision for the future Shift2Rail, namely nine priority areas or ‘key-enablers’ – ranging from automated rail transport, digitalisation and ‘mobility as a seamless service’ to ‘maintenance of the future’ and optimised infrastructure, among others. By focusing our R&I efforts on these priorities, the European rail supply industry is fully committed to ensuring that rail transport will become the backbone and system integrator of sustainable mobility. In order to reach this objective, our industry is ready to continue co-operating with mainline and urban rail operators alongside other stakeholders.

Driverless train Metro Line 1 Paris
Driverless train Metro Line 1, Paris

In this context, UNIFE is closely following the on-going discussions and decisions that will determine the future budgetary capacity of the European Union, notably in the framework of the negotiations on the so-called Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) for the years from 2021 to 2027. In particular, we are making the case for an extension of Shift2Rail, with an increased level of funding for rail-related R&I activities to be provided under the umbrella of the Horizon Europe programme, which is due to be launched in 2021.

UNIFE welcomed the original proposal by the European Commission to increase the budget for Horizon Europe compared to Horizon 2020. In fact, looking at the different financial envelopes which make up the forthcoming Multi-Annual Financial Framework, R&I stands out as one of the very few areas which would see an increase. UNIFE was also pleased to see the implicit acknowledgment that R&I is a matter of essential importance for a successful, modern economy, and it must also be at the heart of the European Union’s policies to decarbonise our economy whilst at the same time boosting economic growth, employment and social inclusion.

As the negotiations on the future EU budget enter their final phase, UNIFE is continuing to call on the European Institutions to be more ambitious and increase the budget for the Horizon Europe framework programme. Furthermore, we are arguing that the resources devoted to mobility within Horizon Europe should also be increased, due to the significance that transport, together with energy and climate, has for the economy and society.

As we all know, mobility is particularly relevant to some of the most compelling mega-trends such as decarbonisation and urbanisation. We strongly believe that rail transport can play a fundamental role to address these challenges, if properly supported with adequate resources to further develop and deliver its true potential.In this regard, the expansion of European funding for rail-related R&I activities must be a priority within the future EU budget, and Europe’s rail supply industry is also ready and determined to play its part!

UNIFE will host a discussion on the topic of EU rail-related innovation investments at SIFER 2019 on 26 March 2019 in Lille, France.

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