Established to advise the European Commission and co-ordinate technical specifications for interoperability and safety, the European Railway Agency has increasingly become a hub for communication within the railway industry. Chris Jackson talks to Executive Director Marcel Verslype

OUTSIDE THE window of Marcel Verslype's office at Valenciennes in northern France is a muddy plot, currently used as an overflow car park. This is the site for the new home of the European Railway Agency, and Verslype's ambition is to have it built and operational by the time his five-year mandate as Executive Director finishes at the end of 2009.

Two years may not seem long to complete a major project, but Verslype says ERA has already come a long way in its short life. 'On the day I started, there was really just me and the management board. Now we have more than 100 staff, and we are still expanding rapidly.'

Pending the completion of its own headquarters - for which the funding was finally agreed last year - ERA is sharing premises with the French railway approvals body Certifer, in a building owned by the Valenciennes Chamber of Commerce & Industry. But the fledgling agency has been growing at such a speed that its host will be moving out this spring to give the agency more space.

An expanding mandate

Established under EU Regulation 881/2004, ERA was given a clearly-defined role aimed at 'improving the competitive position of the railway sector' in Europe, with particular emphasis on interoperability and safety (right).

These two primary areas of activity each have their own business unit, although another has been formed to deal with economic evaluation, and a fourth to act as the Systems Authority for ERTMS (Fig 1).

ERA's work programmes are defined by specific mandates and task requests from the European Commission under the various directives and regulations. In the early days these were mostly 'closed' mandates with clearly-defined outputs and timescales. But recent requests have been more open-ended, notably a framework mandate issued on July 13 2007 to review and revise all of the Technical Specifications for Interoperability, dealing with safety-critical errors and 'open points' where no agreement had been reached in the original drafting.

This work will start with revision of the Wagons TSI. Also to come in 2008 are a series of Directive amendments included in the Third Railway Package adopted on October 23, such as putting in place new rules for driver licensing.

Verslype also expects 'foreseen mandates' to emerge which will affect this year's programme, especially the increasing emphasis on cross-acceptance (RG 1.08 p5). Taken together, the growing workload looks certain to exceed ERA's current capabilities, bringing the question of prioritisation.

'In the early days the agency naturally concentrated on setting itself up and carrying out the mandated tasks, but it was subsequently recognised that it wasn't enough just to meet the mandates', says ERA's Strategy & Research Adviser Richard Lockett. 'Everyone agreed that we needed a strategy. It's like assembling a jigsaw - how do the different mandates fit into the big picture? What problem is each mandate solving? What issues do we address when, and what is missing?'

Lockett says 'a lot of work is going on at the technical level', but it is important 'to understand how the individual mandates contribute to the overall competitiveness of the railway sector - which is our objective. We need to prioritise the activities that will make the most difference.' He observes that 'there is a risk of going straight to a solution without having a clear idea of the exact problem to be solved; all the activities covered by the annual work programmes need to fit together across the subject areas and through time to complete the “big picture".'

A first draft of ERA's strategic plan is currently out for consultation with key stakeholders.

Making good progress

Verslype is very pleased with ERA's progress, noting that 'the basic objectives are being delivered, right from the beginning of our work programme. With a few exceptions, we are in line with progress planning; our objectives are being met, and recommendations adopted. We are on the right track.

'At the beginning, we had to define with the sector the content of our activity boxes - these were incremental questions. We have (or will soon have) defined new TSIs and recommendations. And we are delivering value for money, which is very important. We have a budget of €18m for 2008, and around 100 staff, which is not excessive considering our workload. When you compare rail with other sectors of EU activity, we are actually a small agency.'

He is also very pleased with the support that ERA is getting from other organisations in the rail sector. Although bodies such as UIC, CER, EIM and Unife bring together operators, infrastructure managers and suppliers in separate forums, 'ERA has become the place where everybody meets - for the first time', he points out. 'This has given us the processes to tackle some problems that have never been addressed before.'

Asked to comment on the speed with which Europe's railway sector is implementing the various directives and regulations, particularly with regard to the core areas of interoperability and safety, Verslype points out that 'the implementation of the three railway packages is the responsibility of the Commission.' But in general he is pleased with progress, especially on the technical aspects, which 'are fully developed in line with our recommendations'.

'Of course', he continues 'we can complement this work, and help to get all parties fully involved, to explain the issues and the impacts of the changes. We are trying to improve the flow of information to stakeholders and partners, and this will be increasingly important over the next few years.

'We have seen strong requests for more information and interpretation. ERA has been asked to provide training, sometimes in conjunction with national safety authorities and other partners, and we are planning to organise conferences and seminars on specific topics, such as ERTMS. But exactly what we can do in 2008 will depend on our budget'.

Focus on safety

Some railways have expressed concern that implementing the Safety Directive will drive up costs for the industry, but Verslype denies this. 'Rail is already a very safe mode, thanks to years of experience. Our objective is not to improve safety at all costs, but to maintain the existing high level as the market becomes increasingly liberalised.' Once again he refers back to Article 1 of the founding Regulation: ensuring competitiveness is essential.

'We are in continuous discussions with the sector and the national safety authorities', he explains. And within ERA, 'the safety unit works very closely with our economic evaluation unit - preparing impact statements and price lists for every element of our recommendations.' Having two levels of control 'should not increase the costs of the sector'. In fact, 'we feel our role is positive in reducing costs. In several cases, we have actually been able to cut the cost of safety changes that the sector was proposing. Railway operators and national safety authorities can easily under-estimate the true costs, but we have to keep it reasonable.'

Lockett agrees. 'In the past, development of technical standards has been primarily based on “expert judgement" rather than a business case-led approach. These specialist experts within the rail industry have not usually been the ones driving business development initiatives. There is a difference in decision-making between economic analysis versus expert judgement.

'But for the Agency's recommendations to deliver the intended improvements in rail's competitive position, economic evaluation and expert judgement must both drive decision-making.' He cites a working group evaluating safety measures in tunnels as an example where cost:benefit analysis proved its worth, and pays tribute to recent work being carried out in this area by the UK's Rail Safety & Standards Board.

Verslype believes that maintaining a safe railway should not be arduous, 'provided that everyone focuses on the core business and does things in a purposeful way.' He says there is an important role for the various industry associations 'to inform their members' and keep them focused on the main issues. One area where ERA is well placed to provide significant assistance is in the exchange of information, he adds, suggesting that this can facilitate the benchmarking of best practice.

A step towards interoperability

One of ERA's original missions was to co-ordinate development of TSIs, but this remit is split between various articles in its founding mandates. Some areas have made significant progress, whilst others have not (p85).

Verslype accepts that achieving full technical interoperability is not going to happen in the near future, because of the huge legacy of incompatible equipment in the various member states. Nevertheless, he is confident that most of the core principles are now accepted by the key players in the rail sector.

'Whilst it would be ideal to have a complete solution - the ultimate TSI-compliant loco able to go anywhere - we are not there yet', explains Lockett. 'But the snowball has started rolling, the markets are opening up, and everybody wants to compete.' So this year will see a much greater focus being put on the cross-acceptance of rolling stock, which he describes as 'a major stepping-stone towards interoperability'. As an example, he reports that DB pressed the German presidency of the EU 'very hard' for progress with cross-acceptance.

During 2007 the agency received a formal request to take over the cross-acceptance work from an exploratory working group set up by the Commission's Directorate-General for Energy & Transport.

'International operation today is still a massive problem, so there is a lot of enthusiasm for what we are doing', reports Lockett. 'We are under pressure to solve all the problems very quickly.' Verslype confirms that ERA will propose to its administrative board the establishment of its own Cross-Acceptance Unit, which he hopes will become operational this year.

Where next?

Looking to the future, Verslype comments wryly that 'everybody is asking us to do more - the Commission, the railways, other agencies, the Council of Ministers, and even the member states'.

He is convinced that ERA will soon be playing a much bigger role in communications and training, 'preparing guidelines to assist with different deliverables, such as the various TSIs. I believe that the need for guidelines and procedures has been understated in the role of the agency.'

There have also been proposals to expand ERA's role as a repository of data from the European railway sector, over and above its formal mandates to collate safety and standards information. For example, Verslype says 'we have been asked about holding databases for wagons and passenger vehicles on a voluntary basis. There is a strong interest - and it would encourage excellent co-operation with stakeholders', but at the moment he considers that there is neither a mandate nor resources to undertake such work.

Looking beyond the EU, Verslype reports that ERA is establishing a 'limited exchange of experience' with other bodies, such as the railway safety authorities in Australia. There is also a regular exchange of information with OSJD, partly because of ERA's mandate to develop interoperability between 1 435 and 1 520 mm gauge networks. Elsewhere, ERA has been asked to advise railways or authorities adopting European standards - including the Gautrain network under construction in South Africa. But he confirms this work is 'still a marginal part of our activities'.

Asked what he expects ERA to be doing in 10 years' time, Verslype is clear that 'some activities will not exist if we do it correctly. We should not be working on a lot of TSIs - they should all have been approved and incorporated into regulations by then.

'Yes, it can be done in 10 years', he insists. 'We have a terrible workload for the next three or four years. Some projects will phase down, but others will develop, and new mandates will emerge. We shall be completing the jigsaw puzzle with the Commission and the railway sector to agree what might be needed in new TSIs. And by then we could be working on ERTMS Version 4!'

Verslype feels that it is worth examining whether ERA can play a stronger role as 'a Systems Authority for other activities, as we do now for ERTMS. And then we should look at implementation and maintenance - what our role should be in these activities. We will extend our role to keep the sector better informed, and achieve the vision [of a thriving rail industry] step by step.'

But how far can ERA go beyond its core mandate? 'We are not just a servant of the Commission', he insists. 'We have a “special status” that makes us more or less independent, but we are still a very small agency, and we must have very strong co-operation with sector stakeholders.' Exactly what the future holds, Verslype cannot say. But of one thing he is sure. ERA has a vital role - and will be around for the long term.

EU Regulation 881/2004 - Article 1

The objective of the Agency shall be to contribute, on technical matters, to the implementation of the Community legislation aimed at improving the competitive position of the railway sector by enhancing the level of interoperability of railway systems and at developing a common approach to safety on the European railway system, in order to contribute to creating a European railway area without frontiers and guaranteeing a high level of safety.

In pursuing these objectives, the Agency shall take full account of the process of enlargement of the European Union and of the specific constraints relating to rail links with third countries.

Key points about ERA

  • Established by EU Regulation 881/2004
  • All 27 Member States represented on ERA board, along with four representatives from the European Commission and six non-voting sector representatives covering train operators, infrastructure managers, freight and passenger users, the supply industry and the trade unions.
  • Based in northern France; offices in Valenciennes and Lille. New headquarters building to be completed in 2009. Around 100 staff, including 60 technical experts.
  • Four business units: Interoperability, Safety, Economic Evaluation and the ERTMS Systems Authority. New unit for Cross-Acceptance envisaged.
  • Strategy and long-term plan to be agreed this year, replacing short-term mandates.

  • CAPTION: On January 4 Hector Rail began operating through open-access freight services from Sweden to Germany via Denmark using a fleet of Bombardier Traxx multi-system electric locos. Facilitating such cross-border operation is a key objective for ERA Photo: Hector Rail
  • CAPTION: Fig 1. ERA has around 100 staff shared between the five key business areas. Verslype suggests that, in comparison to similar bodies in other industries, ERA is a 'small' organisation
  • CAPTION: EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot visited ERA with representatives of each of the member states' safety authorities
  • CAPTION: ERA is determined that technical specifications for interoperability must keep pace with the market's desire to run more cross-border services, such as this train running from Germany into Italy via Austria, operated by Lokomotion?Photo: Lokomotion

'Nous sommes guidés par l'impératif de la compétitivité'

Etablie pour conseiller la Commission européenne et coordonner les spécifications d'interopérabilité et de sécurité, l'Agence ferroviaire européenne est déjà devenu un carrefour vital pour l'industrie ferroviaire, explique son directeur exécutif Marcel Verslype à Chris Jackson, sur le site de Valenciennes. Des changements de son mandat vont donner à l'AFE un rôle plus stratégique et établir un programme à long terme coordonnant beaucoup de projets différents. L' agence devient un dépositaire des données concernant la sécurité et les normes, et est de plus en plus sollicitée pour assurer formations et conseils à différents acteurs du secteur des chemins de fer

'Die Konkurrenz treibt uns an'

Gegründet mit der Aufgabe, die Europäische Kommission zu beraten und die technischen Spezifikationen für Interoperabilität und Sicherheit zu koordinieren, hat sich die Europäische Eisenbahnagentur (ERA, European Railway Agency) zu einer wichtigen Anlaufstelle für die Eisenbahnwelt entwickelt, wie deren Direktor Marcel Verslype in Valenciennes Chris Jackson berichtet. Änderungen des Mandats gibt der ERA eine stärkere strategische Aufgabe und ermöglicht die langfristige Koordination einer Vielzahl unterschiedlicher Projekte. Die Agentur wird zur Zentralstelle für Sicherheitsdaten und Normen und wird je länger je mehr gefragt als Anbieter für Ausbildung und Betreuung der verschiedenen Interessenten der Eisenbahnwelt

'Para nosotros, lo primero es la competitividad'

Establecida para aconsejar a la Comisión Europea y coordinar los especificaciones técnicos de interoperabilidad y seguridad, la Agencia Ferroviaria Europea se ha convertido en el eje central de la industria ferroviaria, según comenta el director ejecutivo Marcel Verslype a Chris Jackson en Valenciennes. Los cambios en el mandato proporcionarán a ERA un papel más estratégico y establecerán un plan a largo plazo que coordinará proyectos muy diferentes. La agencia se está convirtiendo en un almacén central de datos sobre la seguridad y los estándares y se solicita cada vez con mayor frecuencia como medio de formación y orientación para varios interesados del sector ferroviario