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Land transport research: putting Europe’s railway infrastructure on the right track

The European Commission is promoting a coordinated research strategy for Europe’s extensive railway systems. Officials say investment at both national and EU levels and by public and private organisations is crucial.

Rail station/platform © Peter Gutierrez
European rail back on track © Peter Gutierrez

Today’s European railways form a patchwork of disparate systems and networks, each applying technical and operating standards that have evolved nationally and even locally over the last two centuries. Wide variation in rail systems, particularly in the newly enlarged Union, present an enormous challenge for the European Commission, one of whose key goals is to achieve pan-European interoperability in the rail sector.

But there are other challenges as well. “Railways can be a major factor in Europe’s Lisbon strategy to achieve high growth and employment by 2010,” says Luisa Prista, Head of Unit for Surface Transport at the Commission’s Research DG. “But there has to be an effective EU-level appraisal of rail transport demands and how they can best be met in the coming years.”

Some keys to the future:

Interoperability

Intersystem incompatibility is widely seen as a fundamental barrier to the efficient exploitation of Europe’s greater rail network. “With enlargement, the 25 EU nations now cover 4 million square kilometres – an increase of one-quarter over the EU 15,” says Prista. “Economic dynamism in the new Member States must not be stalled by inadequate transport systems or outdated technologies. Efficient transport systems represent a force for overall socio-economic cohesion, linking rural and remote areas and disparate regions, helping with the development of cultural, regional and economic connections.”

Knowledge exchange

Surface Transport Unit Head Luisa Prista
Luisa Prista

Cross-fertilisation of technologies, ideas and experience from other sectors is a welcome source of expertise. “Every sector has its own unique nature. Rail is characterised by diversity in products and operation modes, dispersion, fragmentation and relatively low RTD investment. The rail sector can learn from other transport modes, such as road and waterborne transport, benefiting from their experience, in particular in respect of innovation strategy and organisational research issues,” explains Prista.

Sustainability

The global challenge of sustainability requires the best effort that a collective Europe can provide. “We all have a responsibility to tackle the greatest challenge both now and in the future – that of sustainability,” says Prista. The Research DG’s current R&D programme concentrates on delivering ‘Sustainable Surface Transport’ by supporting wider initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Gothenburg Declaration. “We have a responsibility to this goal and future generations to deliver on sustainability.”

Competitiveness

A key challenge for the sector is to improve competitiveness while ensuring a sustainable transport system for Europe’s citizens. This means increasing existing railway capacity, encouraging the shift from road to rail, and improving urban mobility. But it also depends on the ability of Europe’s railway industries to deliver new and improved vehicles, equipment and systems that incorporate the latest results of technological research.

Research and technology drive the process

Aware of its research needs and opportunities, the railway sector created the European Rail Research Advisory Council (ERRAC) in 2002. Its long-term vision for the sector – the Strategic Rail Research Agenda (SRRA) – includes the goal of doubling passenger volume and tripling freight by 2020 compared to 2000.

The Commission supports this initiative through the EU’s rolling five-year Research Framework programmes. The current Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) includes a specific research priority in ‘Sustainable Surface Transport.’ Some of the Commission-funded projects in the rail sector are:

  • MODTRAIN – This €17 million, consortium-based project should lead to a new generation of passenger trains – an ‘Airbus concept’ for high-speed and conventional EU rail networks. Participants include major European system integrators, railway undertakings and a rail research resource base.
  • EURNEX – Leading universities and research institutes created this network to develop a virtual rail research centre, based on guidance from stakeholders.
  • EU Driver’s Desk – A good example of how researchers, suppliers and operators can co-operate to solve EU-level problems, this project has tackled the lack of interoperability among drivers’ posts in Europe, making cross-border rail traffic smoother and safer.

Broadening the effort

International co-operation is one of the main features of the European Research Area. FP6 and the Sustainable Surface Transport thematic priority are open to partners from non-EU third countries. “Unfortunately, their participation is still very limited,” says Prista. “The Commission is keen to encourage links with experts from around the world who can contribute to the research effort in Europe – in all fields, not just railways.”

Indeed, Japanese, American, South African and Australian partners have all lent their expertise under EU-funded rail research, in areas such as wheel/rail interaction, high-capacity freight and civil engineering. “These extended partnerships can bring more than technological know-how. Partners from other countries and continents bring different problem-solving approaches and mentalities and are often more commercially-oriented than we are in Europe.”

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