Press release

International cooperation, the biggest challenge in European rail traffic

22 July 2022

International train journeys could be better. There is still a lot of potential for improvement in international coordination. Train holidays should be the norm and air holidays the exception. Before that happens, a lot of change is needed in our "traditional" train sector. PA's innovation specialists Simon Whalley and Martijn Wagner spoke with OV Pro at Railtech Europe.

Traditionally, the organisation of train traffic and its embedding in the infrastructure has often been a national matter, with the focus being within the borders of one's own country. Although everything is being done at a national level to improve train services, international efforts are still far from complete. Running national trains smoothly and without problems on international tracks is not always possible. This is often caused by matters of a technical nature or regulation. "For example, the trains run internationally at different voltages and therefore not all trains can be used internationally. You need special trains that are suitable for this," says Simon Whalley. "In addition, the track also differs between the different countries. For example, the track does not have the same width everywhere."

The regulations between different countries are also different. "For example, in the field of safety requirements, governments use different standards that are not supported by some national systems. For example, the German government has made it a requirement that all train drivers travelling on the German railway must all be proficient in the German language. A bottleneck for international rail traffic," says Wagner.

Financially, there is also a lack of central control. Both in reserving tickets and paying for the use of the track by an international carrier. "The fee that an international rail carrier now has to pay to use certain infrastructure in a country is sometimes extremely high. This is because national governments want to protect domestic carriers. This certainly does not stimulate international train traffic."

"We can still make great strides in the international ticket system," says Whalley. For example, aviation has a seamless system where you can easily book a plane ticket in any country in your own language. "For a carrier, the ticket system is an answer to the interests that play a role within its own organisation. This means that many carriers in Europe have different payment methods. Ideally, you have one central system."That is easier to change in some countries than in others. It is often very complex to implement. "We have to convince the carriers of the importance of changing their system. You could potentially check in anywhere in Europe with your bank card or smartphone. That would make train travel so much easier."

Eurostar success

With better international cooperation, this kind of discontent can be allayed. A good example of such a success story is the international ticket system for passenger transport between Italy, France and Spain. Itineraries in these countries are highly integrated into a shared ticket booking platform. Such a platform is a step in the right direction, says Whalley, who regularly travels from London to the Netherlands. "I could just book a train ride in the Netherlands on an English site. That makes international train travel seamless," says Whalley.

The Eurostar train, which will depart from Amsterdam to London from September, is another example of a resounding success. “The trains used on the London to Amsterdam route are built to be interoperable with the different safety and security systems used by each of the countries, providing a seamless experience means to the traveler crossing the border," says Whalley.

The train has been modified on the train connection to London. At first it only drove to Paris and now it can even continue to Amsterdam. It's a great achievement to have trains that seamlessly cross international borders,” says Whalley enthusiastically.

Accelerate innovation by adopting 'Agile' in innovation and international collaboration

Recently Network Rail has successfully introduced 'Agile working' in innovation. This has resulted in an enormous acceleration to bring innovations to the railways (in a few months instead of 2 years). The success of the approach is mainly the result of the behavioral change that has taken place within Network Rail and its 'stakeholders': self-managing teams that have the mandate to make their own decisions and of which the 'customer' is a part, which means that things can be done very quickly, responding to what the customer actually needs.

A recent success story of international collaboration is the collaboration between ProRail and Network Rail for the application of fiber optics for the detection of disruptive events on the track. Wagner explains how fiber optics can be applied: "A fiber optic cable runs along the rails on an increasing number of routes. A standard signal, a combination of zeros and ones, runs through the cable in a fixed pattern. When an 'event' occurs, it causes a disturbance in the digital pattern. For example, a disturbance can be caused when a train passes by. If you can successfully trace the digital pattern, you can recognize specific events."

With this technology you can obtain a lot of information. "In this way you can determine the location of a train. Better positioning results in less delay and you can better inform travelers. You can also recognise damage to rails or trains earlier. In addition, you can also detect illegally crossing passengers who can cause safety problems and delays" says Wagner.

PA has also been closely involved in this collaboration. "What makes this case unique is that it overcomes the typical barriers in the rail industry. Both parties are open to innovations. This collaboration makes the technology much more promising and easier to apply in the international train network”.

Common Goals

"In several countries there are indeed initiatives that attempt to streamline transport. What is missing is a shared vision, ambition and technological principles among international rail carriers and governments. In rail, investments are generally made with a long time horizon (10-20 years). It is therefore very important that there are joint and stable international goals, otherwise you will never reach a consensus about how and where to invest. In the traditional rail industry, collaboration is not always obvious and this feels quite disruptive."

"It is necessary that the complexity is noticeably reduced here to stimulate international cooperation and investment. Due to the long investment horizon, trust is extremely important among investors, and you give that confidence by being able to share a vision, ambition and longer term goals, and that's where the shoe pinches, which turns out to be very difficult in the rail industry," concludes Whalley.

So there is a role here for both governments and rail parties to formulate policy and to stimulate cooperation and coordination that make international travel easier and further improve the passenger experience. If they take up this role actively, this will greatly improve the competitive position of rail transport.

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