When Europe's rail pioneers created the first steam engines some two centuries ago, they gave little thought to whether their inventions might be used in other countries: while their ingenuity helped transform travel, they never got round to setting uniform rail technologies across the continent.
© iStockphoto/Kajdi Szabolcs
The consequence is that today, although railway tracks crisscross the world, European trains are stubbornly limited in their range. Cross-border rail traffic is hindered by discrepancies between the national networks, with factors such as power supply, signalling, operational procedures and even track gauge varying from country to country. It means that with rare exceptions for example, the Eurostar and Thalys trains it is almost impossible for passengers to take the same train across national borders.
But research is helping overcome the obstacles. A €30.4 million project called MODTRAIN has helped develop standardised, interoperable components for tomorrow's trains. MODTRAIN, which received a €16.9 million grant from the European Union, brought together 37 partners from 10 European countries, including three big railway operators (France's SNCF, Germany's Deutsche Bahn and Italy's Trenitalia) as well industry, railway research centres and universities.
By standardising train components and interfaces, the project which ran from 2004 to 2008 - offered ways to improve performance and lower costs for both railway suppliers and operators. "It's about making the trains work on different networks," says Eric Fontanel, who was MODTRAIN's chairman, and who is also the General Manager of UNIFE, the professional association that brings together rail supply companies. "MODTRAIN helps set common standards and specifications so that a new generation of trains can work anywhere in Europe."
It ties in with broader European efforts to boost the railway sector, including the European Commission's 2011 Transport White Paper that says half of all journeys above 300 km should be by rail by 2050. At the same time, with EU governments opening up national railway markets to competition, there are now strong business and environmental reasons to ensure new trains can work anywhere in Europe.
These efforts should improve rail services and with more and more high-speed trains even help them compete with air transport. MODTRAIN thus supports both railway suppliers and operators by cutting manufacturing costs through economies of scale, boosting productivity of new rolling stock, and improving reliability through service-proven components.
So what has MODTRAIN achieved? The researchers redesigned everything from the traction systems to the controls, and even addressed interior design, as they produced a standardised set of components and interfaces. The safety aspects at the front of the train were improved, with a new shell to absorb energy in a crash and protect the driver. The team also redesigned the carriage to ensure passengers would be familiar with it, ensuring that the buttons for opening and closing doors, as well as calling for assistance or requesting an emergency stop, would be easily understood by anyone, anywhere in Europe.
But Eric Fontanel says that beyond its technical achievements, MODTRAIN has also been a precursor to other projects. "MODTRAIN set out new methods for collaboration," he says. "It has been instrumental in building a cooperative spirit across the industry. We are now seeing a lot of common projects in the sector dealing with the principle of standardisation."
The designs are currently being studied by Europe's standardisation bodies, and it may still be years before the designs are systematically applied to all new European trains. However, the research from the MODTRAIN is already being referred to in new EU-wide regulations. The project could help fulfil the promise of those rail pioneers, by building a new generation of fully interoperable trains that can travel to any corner of Europe where there are train tracks.