CHANGE is sweeping through the corridors of Europe's railway organisations, not least at the International Union of Railways.

Since its birth in 1922, UIC has worked to devise and define technical norms that allow trains to run across Europe's frontiers. Its practices and standards have also been adopted in many other parts of the world - UIC now has 72 active members spread across Europe, the Middle East and Asia, plus 59 associate members, including many railways in Asia, Africa, America, and Australia.

UIC's role in bringing about technical standardisation is undisputed, but the European Commission has long felt that much more must be done to bring about what it terms 'a single European railway area', where competition between operators will drive down costs and force greater efficiency. This vision depends on greater interoperability than has been achieved so far.

Enter the European Railway Agency, which is charged by the Commission with overseeing the implementation of interoperability and safety management (p34). ERA is expected to bring fresh impetus to the process of change in Europe. But what are the implications of its arrival for UIC?

A competitive world

At the end of November, the UIC board decided that the time had come to embark on a fresh strategy. UIC's primary purpose is now 'to promote technical co-operation between UIC members, at the same time respecting their commercial and managerial independence in the light of the new competitive world'. A second objective is 'to maintain and develop the coherence of the whole railway system', particularly in the pan-European context.

Key issues in UIC's future role are the development and management of infrastructure; interoperability and safety; standardisation; and 'strategic technical questions'. The organisation agrees that interoperability is an essential tool in the battle to improve rail's competitiveness.

In working with the ERA, UIC is clear that 'synergies should be sought, and ways of co-operation'. It recognises the need to examine how the UIC's technical documentation and the organisation's expertise 'can be integrated with the future work of the Agency', and 'how the UIC can most effectively meet the Agency's expectations'.

Chief Executive Philippe Roumeguère goes further, saying that 'UIC's technical role is going to be more important, as Europe's technical railway standards are now to be stamped by EU states through the ERA. UIC will play a more active role in ERA working groups to prepare ad hoc proposals.'

Specifically, UIC will propose specifications for the technical norms; establish a 'technical platform' to support the work of associations such as CER and EIM, and 'lead international technical co-operation projects in the fields of research and economics'. It will also define 'common arrangements and recommendations' for its members, and develop agreements with inter-governmental organisations and relevant professional associations where co-operation with the railway industry is needed.

But UIC points out that interoperability is not simply a technical issue. In November it highlighted the need to accelerate 'technical, operational, regulatory and commercial interoperability'. Here it is referring to 'soft' items such as information and reservation systems, where rail operators often lag behind their airline competitors.

Asked to comment on the Commission's policy of encouraging competition, Roumeguère says 'the goal is obviously a global increase of the rail market share and not internal self-destroying competition'. Winning business back from road and air will demand 'the best railway competitors', he believes.

Restructuring implemented

Finally, UIC recognises that strong support must be given to projects requiring international co-operation. In future, its Executive Committee of 13 senior railway executives will rule on action to be taken, projects to be launched and their budgets. It will also monitor progress and take corrective action if required.

The General Assembly and the World Executive Council will continue to exist, but the Assembly of Active Members will be abolished. The Passenger, Freight, Infrastructure, Technical and Research committees will no longer function, their role being absorbed by Forums dealing with Passenger and Freight Operators, Infrastructure, Safety, European Integration, Research, Environment and other topics. The Forums will put forward proposals to the Executive Committee.

UIC will continue its work on specific projects such as international freight corridors, narrow and broad gauge railways, desert railways, interaction between railways and suppliers, as well as training and management.

During 2005 UIC plans to focus on the development of European corridors and strategies for migration to ETCS/ERTMS (p29), developing the Prifis timetable information, reservations and sales system (RG 1.03 p22), research projects such as ModTrain, Europac, Railcom and Green, as well as issues surrounding noise and emissions from diesel engines.

On the specific question of ERTMS, Roumeguère believes 'there is a general acceptance that ERTMS is the right long-term technical solution, but the railways will have to be assisted with funding to get over the costly migration period. The specific focus of work in the coming years will be to ensure that ERTMS in rolled out in the most effective way, on important rail corridors, so that the benefits of reduced on-board and trackside equipment resulting from the rationalisation of over 20 signalling systems in Europe will result in lower costs, particularly when coupled with economies of scale in procurement and lower cross-acceptance costs.'

  • CAPTION: 'The goal is obviously a global increase of the rail market share'
    Philippe Roumeguère, Chief Executive, International Union of Railways