THE DECISION in the TSI to make ERA the Systems Authority for the European Rail Traffic Management System was clearly a pragmatic move, although one that was not intended when the agency was set up. 'Of course, ETCS was a long-standing project before ERA was formed', says Pio Guido, who heads the unit. 'We are a sub-activity, dealing with this one very specific issue.'

Guido pays tribute to the pioneering work done by Swiss Federal Railways, and the strong support from the Commission. He estimates that around €500m was spent on ERTMS development in the 10 years from 1997, and a similar amount has been allocated in the TENs budget for 2007-13. ETCS Level 2 operation 'is now a reality' in Switzerland, Italy and Spain he points out, adding hopefully that the Brussels - Amsterdam corridor should come on stream in 2008. 'Interoperability means people are really using the system and investing in it!'

'We have been confronted with the hard rules of the new game', Guido admits, pointing out that error correction is critical with a software-based system. 'Going to zero errors would be a nice dream', he muses.

Although Guido insists that the Commission's ERTMS corridor strategy 'is a political initiative', and thus beyond ERA's remit, Richard Lockett says it is 'flushing out the differences in interpretation and the incompatibilities' between the various applications. The vexed question of harmonising operating rules along the corridors (p95) will be addressed by the Agency, as the ERTMS sub-group only deals with technical issues.

Nevertheless, one of Guido's biggest concerns is the need to deal with the European dimension of ERTMS. 'It is a European system', he emphasises. 'But today the difference between the European dimension and business considerations is not giving everyone the incentive to solve the bigger issues. We need to get the buy-in of all railways, as we are legally required to seek a pan-European solution - although we accept that some people will suffer adverse consequences from time to time.' Operators and infrastructure managers must 'resist the temptation to try and solve problems locally with their supplier, in order to minimise the impact on their existing network.' But he accepts that 'the contractual arrangements are still local - and the stakeholders want to see the line open on time. We can see the strains and the difficulties. We need to show them the best interests of the railway industry.'

Following a recommendation to the Commission in 2006, ERA has been empowered to update the ERTMS specifications and come up with proposals for improvements. 'These will be subject to impact assessment, to ensure the best technical solution', promises Guido, although he admits 'the impact will never be zero'. There has been some 'heated debate' with organisations represented on the working group, he reports, but 'we are now identifying problems with the specification, and will make sure the future version is correct'. Guido concedes that the technical debate over ERTMS development has not been helped by the separation of infrastructure and operations. 'ETCS puts the intelligence and more of the cost into the on-board part - the Commission is aware that the costs and benefits are asymmetric. Different parts of the sector have conflicting interests; we need their full support, although we understand it is difficult.'

Good progress is being made, thanks to the introduction of a triage process that can differentiate between error corrections and enhanced functionality in the multiplicity of change requests being received from the railways. An improved (defect-free) version of System Requirements Specification 2.3.0 is currently with the Article 21 Committee which consolidates the views of the European Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers, and all being well it should be published shortly. Looking further ahead, Verslype says 'we are clear about the differences between 2.3.0 and 3.0.0.' He is confident that an agreed timescale for the development and implementation of 3.0.0 will be announced 'in the coming weeks - and certainly during 2008'.