The European Commission encourages the interoperability of trains

The Commission has adopted today measures to strengthen the European system of train control (ETCS).

ETCS is the European standard for train signalling and speed control. Deployment of ETCS across key freight and high speed corridors will greatly improve the competitiveness of European railways.

The ETCS concept is simple: information is transmitted from the ground to the train, where an on-board computer uses it to calculate the maximum authorised speed and then automatically slows down the train if necessary. ETCS is part of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).

Currently, there are more than 20 different signalling systems in operation in Europe and their incompatibility is a major technical barrier to international traffic. For example, adding an additional national safety system in an existing locomotive, already authorised in different countries, and obtaining again all safety authorisations may cost more than €2 million and take more than two years. ETCS will eliminate these costs.

However, ETCS will only bear its fruits if products are fully compatible and conform to the European specifications. The decision adopted today strengthens the requirements regarding testing, in particular that on-board products are tested in accredited laboratories.

Technical background

The concept of European Train Control System (ETCS) is not new: there are over 20 national systems for automatically controlling the speed of trains. Unfortunately, these national systems are incompatible with one another. To be able to circulate on networks equipped with different systems, either the engines must be changed at the borders (which means a considerable amount of time is lost) or the engines must be equipped with different on-board systems compatible with the different track systems used by the different networks (which increases costs and the risks of breakdown). Either way, this creates a rift in the single market and an obstacle to free movement.

This has an especially adverse impact on goods transport. Although rail transport should be more competitive over long distances, each border adds significant extra costs and delays, translating into market losses and saturation of the road network.

The European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) could significantly increase the competitiveness of rail transport. This is particularly true for freight when the system is deployed in a coordinated manner along a corridor and is accompanied by relevant measures, such as harmonisation of the operating rules or enhancement of the infrastructure if necessary. On the Rotterdam-Genova corridor, for example, the volume of goods transported could be doubled by 2020, which would be the equivalent of one more heavy goods vehicle passing along this route every 37 seconds.

The ERTMS is a major industrial success for Europe. Its performance and its cost mean that it has rapidly gained acceptance even beyond Europe and it is currently the global reference standard, used on all new lines.

Today, in Europe, more than 4000 km of lines are equipped with ETCS. Moreover, the equipment of more than 4000 additional kilometres has already been contracted, thus indicating that the length of ETCS equipped lines will more than double over the next two or three years and the equipment rate is expected to further increase over the coming years.

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