HomeOpinionWhat has Europe ever done for rail?

What has Europe ever done for rail?

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There’s no denying that the transport sector has been in a tailspin since the recent Brexit votes, with some worrying that the rug could be pulled under EU-funded transport and infrastructure projects and that rail fares could spiral with rising inflation.

However, rest assured that it’s not all doom and gloom, and Brexit could provide the unforeseen opportunity for the UK rail industry to lead the European technology revolution.

Europe has done a lot for rail in the past 25 years: one can travel easily from London to Lyon, Berlin to Bordeaux and Amsterdam to Avignon on what can be seen as the ‘Europa Line’. This has been made possible by the range of European Railway Directives that have come into force since 1991 – the first was aimed at opening up previously nationally owned railways across Europe to competition from the private sector and thus de-monopolising the railways of Europe.

Further directives were issued in 2001, essentially promoting the concept of seamless cross- border travel. This first group of Directives took the collective title of the ‘First Railway Package’. Since then a series of further ‘packages’, the fourth just recently issued, have extended the laws to cover a whole host of technical and regulatory issues, such as track allocation and access, ticketing, licensing and safety.

European technology

The UK has been working towards upgrading and harmonising its largely Victorian railway via renewal and enhancement schemes and, most recently, under the new initiative of the Digital Railway programme (DR). An industry- wide initiative, DR will use European-specified technology as the core signalling, and European standards to create a digital environment around it, in order to increase line capacity and reliability. It’s something that hasn’t been attempted anywhere else in Europe.

At the moment, when train drivers look out of their cab, what they see is an array of signals, track poles and other infrastructure that can fail or degrade and cause delay. To improve capacity, DR will use European Train Control System (ETCS), the digital equivalent of the traditional signalling system, which removes fixed-signals and in turn the need for trains to stop and start at red lights. Ultimately, ETCS eliminates blocks completely and trains can run even closer together.

Now the real question is whether the referendum result signals ‘DR-EXIT’, or is ETCS still the way forward for UK rail?

ETCS has been specified by Europe, and for Europe, with the sole purpose of harmonising train control across the continent and therefore enable seamless travel across our borders. All member countries must abide by these train specifications whenever they signal a new line or upgrade an existing one, for instance.

For rail passengers and commuters alike, ETCS has the potential to improve capacity by as much as 40% by removing ‘traffic-light’ signals and speed signs alongside the track. There can be more trains per track-kilometre as drivers would know exactly where the trains in front and behind are, thanks to the data transmitted via control centres.

But it is not only passengers that will benefit. Train companies and infrastructure managers will do as well since ETCS could reduce the cost of the railway by 25% through the removal of trackside signals and the associated cost of maintenance.

Furthermore, compliance with European legislation makes for efficient specification and procurement. All of the major suppliers now have virtually off-the-shelf systems designed and certified to the ETCS specification so, when buying a new system, one just asks for the latest specification. This makes for healthy competition between all the suppliers.

In addition, ETCS has the capability of being a high performance communication-based train control system (CBTC) and, while metro operators may select a bespoke system, ETCS brings just the same performance and advanced technology but to a standard specification which can be mixed and matched.

When it comes to operation and maintenance, there is a growing body of experience across Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, of how ETCS performs – so operation and maintenance becomes standard practice. Repairs and spares are off-the-shelf and maintenance principles, manuals and tools can be reused. Safety is at the core of the ETCS specification and is assured through technical and process compliance.

On the down side, the ETCS specification is slow to evolve and is naturally lagging behind the latest technology due to the sometimes long-winded process for change. However, the UK railways are in need of a technology refresh in any case and implementing ETCS would be a major step forward.

In short, complying with European standards makes for an efficient and reliable railway for passengers. The delivery of high performance systems brings reliable operation and maintenance, high levels of safety and form the basis for efficient specification and procurement.

BREXIT brings opportunities

This view may be optimistic, the specifications are not fool proof and there is room for improvement. There is still work to do and there will be many sceptics watching to see if first Thameslink, and then the Digital Railway early deployments, can live up to their billing. The next few years will answer some key questions for the UK railways.

However, now that we have voted to come out of the European Union it would make no sense to abandon all the advantages of ETCS.

What is likely to happen is that all those digital technologies that rail operators might want to add , such as a new system that could tell you where there’s an available seat on the train, might now become much easier to implement because there will be no need to seek approval from Europe if these technologies don’t precisely fit EU standards. Britain could also benefit from not having to “dot every I and cross every T” with respect to the compliance documentation which Europe has specified must be produced.

On the whole, BREXIT might be the opportunity for a bright future. Out of Europe, but leading the technology revolution, the UK rail industry now has the responsibility to select the right technology and evolve the right operational culture to implement the Digital Railway vision without allowing BREXIT to de-rail it from delivering the benefits.

This moment in the railway’s history is an opportunity to provide leadership to steer a clear course through the next few years of uncertainty, providing the necessary technical assurance and programme guidance to ensure delivery of the vision for the future of rail transport in the UK.

Written by Steve Denniss rail technical director at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.


  1. How could fares spiral ! We already pay the highest prices in the world ! My company pays for my travel but i simply refuse to travel by train because the price is unbelievably high in the uk. Spending billions is not going to change this and rail travel is just not an option for most people when you can get the megabus at a fraction of the cost ! Rail is a false economy !


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