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Deployment of the rail signalling system ERTMS/ETCS

This summary has been archived and will not be updated, because the summarised document is no longer in force or does not reflect the current situation.

Deployment of the rail signalling system ERTMS/ETCS

The European Commission hopes to revitalise the rail sector by eliminating technical barriers to trade and to the interoperability of trains (their ability to run on any section of the network). This would enable the integration of the European rail network to be promoted, while ensuring increased safety and reducing costs.


Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the deployment of the European rail signalling system ERTMS/ETCS [COM(2005) 298 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


Europe has more than twenty different signalling and speed control systems for rail transport. Although expensive, on-board systems in locomotives fitted with transducers, which react to signals transmitted from the track, are necessary for both safety and traffic management. Nevertheless, the coexistence of various systems is a barrier to the development of international rail traffic, as locomotives have to be able to 'read' the signals from different networks when crossing borders. The Thalys train for example, which links Paris and Brussels in particular, has seven on-board systems. This results in increased costs and breakdown risk, as well as being a headache for drivers, who have to be able to juggle several interfaces. In addition, this segmentation represents an obstacle to the integration of rail transport on a European scale, while road transport benefits from the absence of such barriers.

Considering the abolition of these barriers to be fully in line with the Lisbon Strategy (since it will increase the competitiveness of the rail sector while promoting its integration), on 4 July 2005 the European Commission published a Communication on the deployment of the European rail signalling system ERTMS/ETCS.

The importance of signals for safety

The twenty different systems coexisting in Europe are currently developed on a national level. They are very different in terms of performance and safety. Several fatal accidents, including those in Bologna in 2005, Albacete in 2003 and London in 1999, show that a more effective signalling system with automatic train speed control could improve the safety of the railways.

A series of extra costs for operators

Locomotives operating internationally also have to be equipped with a variety of on-board systems able to process the information transmitted by track-side systems. As adding on-board systems is expensive, and sometimes even impossible, some trains have to stop at borders in order to change locomotive. As a result, for the Thalys train the numerous signalling systems to be integrated push up the cost of manufacturing each trainset by 60 %. Such obstacles make the connection and integration of the different European networks problematic.

The Commission therefore calls for the gradual transition to a system that is common to the various Member States: the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).

This has two components:

  • GSM-R, a radio communication system based on standard GSM (used by mobile telephones), but using various frequencies specific to rail;
  • ETCS (European Train Control System), which not only allows permitted speed information to be transmitted to the driver, but also monitors the driver's compliance with these instructions.

The deployment of ETCS

While the deployment of GSM-R, based on successful public GSM technology, is taking place quickly, ETCS has been developed specifically for the rail sector and takes longer. It requires the installation of a specific module on board the train and for the transducers on the track to use the same ETCS format. Given the long service life of rail equipment (more than 20 years), it is impossible to renovate the entire network at once. The Commission therefore estimates that it is inevitable that there will often be at least one system coexisting with ETCS on board and/or on the track.

There is a lot at stake in the long term, especially with respect to reducing external costs, such as pollution, noise, safety and congestion. In addition, it appears that the costs of ETCS, used on its own, may be considerably lower than those of conventional systems. Having a single system would also reduce the complexity of the locomotives and thereby simplify maintenance operations. According to UNIFE (the Association of European Railway Industries), ETCS could consequently provide an increase in line capacity of between 2 and 20 % when compared with existing systems.

In favour of a rapid migration strategy

The Commission is planning a rapid migration strategy, with the aim of quickly reaching a critical mass of ETCS equipment. It therefore hopes that a sufficient number of traction units will be equipped over a period of ten or twelve years, while at the same time large interoperable international corridors are created.

The entire rail sector also hopes that such a strategy can be implemented, having endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding signed on 17 March 2005 with the Commission. In concrete terms this entails investments amounting to 5 billion in order to reach the critical mass by 2016. The Commission proposes to support up to 50 % of the investments. Support may diminish over time in order to speed up the migration. The rail sector has also pledged to assist the Member States in preparing national deployment plans.

The role of the European Railway Agency

In this context, it consequently has to be ensured that Community funds allocated elsewhere in the sector, and especially to infrastructure projects, do not work against the completion of an interoperable trans-European network. For this reason, the Commission hopes that failure to comply with the technical specifications of interoperability in general, and the use of systems other than ETCS in particular, even when legally justified, will be considered as minus points when evaluating the projects. In addition, it is important to guarantee that trains equipped with an ETCS and GSM-R module made by one manufacturer are able to run on a network equipped by another manufacturer.

The Commission therefore proposes to make the European Railway Agency, based in Lille/Valenciennes in France, responsible for these technical specifications. These specifications were first referred to by the Commission in 2002 and were supplemented in 2004. Consequently, for any project supported by Community funds and involving the implementation of ETCS or GSM-R, the final payment will be made subject to demonstration, by means of tests, of compliance with the specifications of interoperability.

A European coordinator

The Commission has also judged it appropriate to appoint a European coordinator, a prominent personality in the rail transport sector, to facilitate the coordinated deployment of ETRMS.

The certification of drivers

In addition, the Commission points out that the standardisation achieved through the implementation of ERTMS will permit less specific training for drivers, subject to the condition that they obtain the European Certificate. The European Railway Agency will also promote exchanges of drivers and trainers between railway companies in different Member States.

Last updated: 09.11.2006