Arriving at our destination by train

01. Juni 2006 zur Übersicht

European Railway Service: Digital technology can standardise the 20 signalling systems on the European railway network

The rail network in Europe resembles a large patchwork rug. Each country has its own locomotives and signalling systems. ERTMS is the technology that should make an integrated transport system possible and travel cheaper. Article by Michael Cramer in the German magazine punktum.

The rail network in Europe resembles a large patchwork rug. Each country has its own locomotives and signalling systems. ERTMS is the technology that should make an integrated transport system possible and travel cheaper. How it might be financed is not clear.


Whenever a train is about to cross the EU’s national borders, its locomotive must either be crammed full of technology, or be changed. The Thalys high-speed train, for example, requires seven systems to be able to travel between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne. Multi-system locomotives such as these are not just expensive, they also hamper the work of the engine drivers and therefore present a possible source of danger. In short, the existence at the present time of over 20 different signalling and speed-monitoring systems in the EU is anything but up-to-date, given a common internal market with mounting flows of traffic.

An intelligent system instead of new construction

Making one system out of more than 20: this is the ambitious 20-year plan for developing a uniform European Rail Traffic Management Systems (ERTMS). Behind it lies a technology superior to the conventional systems. Signalling masts are no longer required and the permissible speed is continuously monitored.

ERTMS consists of two basic components. The European Train Control System (ETCS) monitors speed. Information between track and vehicle is transmitted via the Global System for Mobile Communications-Rail (GSM-R). A computer on board the locomotive compares the train’s speed with the maximum permissible speed in the ETCS. If this speed is exceeded, the train automatically brakes.

There are three ways of transmitting information between track and vehicle: either signals which are installed on the track transmit data via so-called standard or Eurobalise systems (Level 1), or data is transmitted via mobile radio communication (Level 2). Track signals are then no longer needed, and considerable savings can therefore be made in investment and maintenance costs. In the final stage of Level 3, ERTMS is able to increase a track’s capacity significantly because cycle times of trains fluctuate. Bottlenecks at bends are removed without the need for cost-intensive new construction.

The European locomotive

Through traffic, with no time-consuming changes in locomotives and engine drivers at borders, reduces costs and journey time. Journey flows can therefore be moved from road to rail. When there are no French, German or Belgian, but just European locomotives, production costs will also fall due to higher volumes.


No wonder, then, that Switzerland has decided to equip its entire rail network with ERTMS. It has already been installed on many high-speed tracks in the EU as well, for instance on the Rome-Naples, Vienna-Budapest and Jüterbog-Leipzig lines.

Although ERTMS has been well-engineered and tested, the service life of the present systems - usually more than 20 years - means that the ERTMS and a conventional system will coexist for many years. The transition should therefore be planned on long-term considerations and be anchored by the EU Commission in an ERTMS master plan. An EU-wide approval procedure should prevent countries from ‘going it alone’.

Negotiating national borders

With the uniform train protection system, the advantage of longer lines also becomes evident in Europe. In the EU just 14 per cent of freight is carried by rail, whereas the figure for the USA, the land of highways, stands at about 40 per cent. Given that the EU is at present such a technological and political hotchpotch, it is not really possible to increase this percentage to any appreciable extent. It is therefore worth investing in the ERTMS. In view of the scarcity of public funds, the EU has agreed on the right priorities with the national rail operating companies. Six rail freight corridors should be fitted with ERTMS: Rotterdam-Genoa, Naples-Berlin-Stockholm, Antwerp-Basle/Lyons, Seville-Lyons-Turin-Trieste-Ljubljana, Dresden-Prague-Brno-Vienna-Budapest, Duisburg-Berlin-Warsaw. National self-interest is overcome because there is no dispute as to how funds are distributed between the countries involved. The rapid success of these projects would encourage further initiatives and thus help to achieve interoperability throughout Europe.

An unresolved issue: who will finance the ERTMS?

The uniform system envisaged should not, however, be nullified ‘by the back door’, just because a few kilometres of a track, for instance, are not fitted with ERTMS, with this gap having to be equipped with the respective national system running in parallel. ERTMS must be converted without interruption from platform to platform, from freight centre to freight centre up to frontier or port respectively. The EU may only promote ERTMS if all these criteria are met.

The Paris-Eastern France-South-West Germany fast rail link and the Rotterdam-Genoa north-south corridor cannot as yet allow through travel with ERTMS, since gaps need to be remedied as quickly as possible. And funding still has to be secured.

ERTMS: an innovative export success

The Member States and the rail companies disagree, of course, about the respective investment required, their national train protection and signalling systems and the ‘market phase’ in which they find themselves. These differences are unavoidable in the EU, however, and are not an argument against ERTMS. Given the European dimension of ERTMS, subsidies are justified and even essential. Member States, the EU, rail companies and the railway supply industry must act in consensus and spread costs in a non-discriminatory manner.

In order to reduce start-up costs for small and medium-sized enterprises and to facilitate access to the market, the EU Commission should begin to consider promoting leasing models for the rolling stock.

ERTMS not only provides opportunities for a converging Europe; it is also vital for the medium- to long-term development of the rail industry and its 15 000 highly skilled jobs. It is already a major export, since many rail companies - including some non-European ones - have decided to replace their obsolete systems with ERTMS. Current locomotive orders from Korea, Taiwan, India, Saudi Arabia and China, as well as infrastructure projects in those countries, are a clear measure of the market potential. ERTMS could become the world standard if it can be built on a strong European market base.

The European Union needs a uniform rail network for transporting both freight and people from Lisbon to Tallinn, from Paris to Warsaw and from London to Athens. With ERTMS it will take a huge step closer towards achieving that goal.

Michael Cramer is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the ERTMS. He is spokesperson for the Greens/EFA group on the Committee on Transport and Tourism.