EU investment will see 'substantial boost' in rail innovation

Improving the attractiveness and competitiveness of the EU's rail system is vital for a sustainable single European transport area, says Joao Aguiar Machado.

By Joao Aguiar Machado

04 Nov 2014

Rising demand for transport and the resulting congestion, security of energy supply and climate change are just some of the major issues that the European Union and the wider world confront. To tackle these challenges will mean that the railway sector will have to assume a larger share of transport demand in the coming decades.

The European commission is working to create a single European railway area. This is an essential part of the long term vision for a wider single European transport area, which will require a better balance between all modes of transport to achieve a more competitive and resource efficient European transport system.

"The commission is almost tripling it's financing of rail research and innovation to €450m"

However, difficulty remains for Europe’s rail network in offering a convincing alternative to road transport. Despite public support for significant investment in infrastructure and high-grade technology availability, the share of overall transport use via rail remains disappointingly modest - six per cent for passenger transport and approximately 10 per cent for freight. However, there are encouraging signs in member states where the market is more open.

The long-term competitive success of rail in Europe is dependent on a variety of factors. Setting up a consistent and stable regulatory environment will play an important role. With the legislative proposals of the fourth railway package, currently under discussion in the council and parliament, the European commission intends to dismantle the remaining technical, administrative and regulatory barriers holding back competitiveness. The 'technical pillar' of the package will improve interoperability and safety and envisages a new role for the European railway agency. Companies will see their costs reduced as red tape is cut and technical rules are brought into alignment across Europe. The 'market pillar' of the package is designed to create genuine market opportunities for all in a fair and competitive environment that should be achieved by strengthening the independence of infrastructure managers.

However, the industry still needs to move with the times. That means constant innovation in products, services and processes, which will require large scale and coordinated investment. EU research and innovation must help rail to play a new and wider role in the global transport market, both by addressing urgent short-term problems that beset business operations, and by developing a long term vision on how to offer an attractive alternative to other forms of transport.

This is the background and context for setting up the Shift2Rail joint undertaking - a new partnership launched by the commission, which will drive innovation in the years ahead. Shift2Rail will pool the work done in research and innovation by a number of parties from the public and private sectors, from outside the rail community and from research organisations and SMEs. With a budget of €920m, it will provide a substantial boost to innovation in the industry. The commission is almost tripling its financing of rail research and innovation to €450m, between 2014-2020, compared with €155m for the previous period.

A specific aim of Shift2Rail is to reduce the life-cycle cost of railway transport - the costs of building, operating, maintaining and renewing infrastructure and rolling stock - by as much as 50 per cent, while making other welcome reductions in areas such as noise and environmental impact. These innovations will make train travel more affordable and thereby promote the use of rail, which will benefit rail companies, infrastructure managers and public transport providers. They will also help to reduce subsidies that national governments pay to finance public rail services, which were estimated to be €36-38bn in Europe in 2012. Rail capacity should increase significantly, doubling by 2030, thanks to this new public-private partnership, allowing for more attractive passenger and freight railway services to be offered.

Lastly, rail's operational reliability needs to be substantially improved to make it more punctual, safe and secure as a travel and shipment option. Shift2Rail is expected to increase reliability and punctuality by as much as 50 per cent.

"Shift2Rail is expected to increase reliability and punctuality by as much as 50 per cent"

The technical pillar of the fourth railway package, with its objective of aligning products for use across the whole of the European rail area, will greatly facilitate the development of innovative ideas for the market and at ground level. This allows manufacturers to develop significant economies of scale. Equally important, Shift2Rail should help to provide innovative ways of bridging the remaining technical differences between national rail systems.

In conclusion, the fourth railway package and the Shift2Rail joint undertaking will create the conditions for building the single European railway area, improving the attractiveness and competitiveness of the EU rail system and help maintain Europe's leadership in the global rail market.