INTRO: One of the organisations influencing railway research in Europe is the Union of European Railway Industries. General Manager Drewin Nieuwenhuis feels ’the political winds are in favour of rail’, telling Murray Hughes in Brussels that he expected a positive response to UNIFE’s application for EU research funds

DURING THE late 1990s UNIFE enhanced its stature when the then Chairman, Adtranz chief Kaare Vagner decided ’to get the big companies really involved’. According to General Manager Drewin Nieuwenhuis, it was this that transformed UNIFE into a professional rail industry lobbying organisation.

Recognising that the EU bodies in Brussels could have a direct influence on the railway industry and related policies governing the environment, technology and standardisation, UNIFE moved from Paris to be closer to the fulcrum of European legislative power. The organisation now has eight full-time staff, its premises have been modernised, and Nieuwenhuis has overseen the launch of e-newsletters and a website.

In contrast to the International Union of Railways or the International Union of Public Transport, where information on research issues is generally shared, UNIFE heads a grouping of private companies who compete against each other and who have no interest in transferring knowledge unless there is a common benefit.

International rivalries also exist, and UNIFE counts among its associate members 11 national rail industry associations, with whom it ’is now negotiating to become more involved’. Around 60 companies form the bulk of the membership, but the national associations represent another 600. UNIFE thus has clout to be reckoned with - altogether Europe’s railway industry turns over around €27bn a year and employs 130000 people.

Membership was strengthened in 1999 by the adherence of the European Federation of Rail Trackwork Contractors, which represents about 35 companies, but since then UNIFE has lost several members through mergers and takeovers.

Nieuwenhuis believes that the consolidation process of the systems integrators may have stopped for the time being, but ’my expectation is that it will continue at the next level down’. A membership recruitment drive is currently targeted at railway infrastructure contractors, telecommunications companies, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).


UNIFE works closely with the UIC and UITP, but also with the Community of European Railways, the International Union of Road-Rail Transport and the International Union of Private Wagon Owners, pushing for influence and funding at the European level. In May, for example, it submitted to the European Commission a European Railway Research Strategy jointly prepared with the UIC, UITP and the CER.

Essentially this is aimed at securing a slice of funding from the 6th Framework Programme for European R&D, which starts in 2002-03 and has a total budget of €16bn. Of this, the €200m sought by UNIFE and its partners looks decidedly modest. Asked if the application will succeed, Nieuwenhuis replies that ’it is looking good, and no-one seems to be against it’.

If secured, the funds will be used for joint research projects, probably related to the goal of interoperability - UNIFE manages jointly with UIC and UITP the secretariat of the European Association for Railway Interoperability (AEIF). Because of inter-company competition, work will be limited to areas of common interest such as the European driver’s control desk, a project funded under the current 5th Framework Programme. Nieuwenhuis explains that even interoperability research ’is a delicate thing for our members’, and he compares the disparate rail suppliers with a united European air industry that competes principally against Boeing in the USA.

UNIFE can achieve a lot by persuading companies to work together where there genuinely is a common benefit. For example, it has drawn up a common specification for life-cycle costs, as ’everyone should use the same definitions and criteria’.

Questioned about the factors influencing the choice of R&D projects, Nieuwenhuis says that ’we all have an interest in enlarging the market share of the rail business; it is important to us to develop the economies of scale, not special products for each customer. Systems become less expensive if you standardise, and UIC and UITP now realise that.’ He refers to disparate procurement procedures - ’it would help if we could use the same terms, and we are trying to bring this about with the UIC and UITP.’

One good example of a European investment project in which the rolling stock industry has a common interest is the twin-tunnel climate chamber nearing completion in Wien; several major UNIFE members are among the stakeholders. Once intended for construction at the Siemens site in Wegberg-Wildenrath, this single facility will serve the whole of Europe, and all railways and suppliers stand to benefit.

Nieuwenhuis affirms that ’the bulk of industry research is company-specific’, with the total spend by suppliers touching €1bn a year. Most of this is invested by the systems integrators and major sub-suppliers. Driving increased spending by the industry is a decline in the volume of research carried out by Europe’s railways, although some, such as DB and SNCF, retain large research facilities.

ERRI’s role, he believes, is also decreasing and changing, although the organisation may in future obtain more subcontracted work (p761).

When railways are restructured or privatised, there is a danger that research is reduced or abandoned, as happened in Britain. If this occurs, ’you are making a mistake’, warns Nieuwenhuis. ’You won’t know what to purchase in 10 years’ time, and people don’t want to ride around in 20-year old trains when cars are replaced about every six years.’

He believes that ’it is important to invest in research at first product level’, but ’you need a lot of money and back-up. SMEs have a lot of innovative power, and we want the European Commission to promote this.’

World outlook

As the main suppliers have merged and consolidated, they have become large multi-national groups. Inevitably, this has a bearing on their role within UNIFE. They may not wish to assemble rolling stock in the EU, for example, as it may be cheaper to do so in eastern Europe or Asia. Nieuwenhuis counters this by saying that UIC and UITP would like UNIFE to become more involved worldwide, for example in major railway events.

He also says that there is an EU programme to help SMEs promote their products outside Europe, for example in the Asia-Pacific region - ’the Chinese market is very interesting, for example.’ UNIFE is also in contact with APTA and the High Speed Ground Transportation Association in the USA.

UNIFE now counts among its members at least two American companies. General Motors-EMD, and less publicly, General Electric Transportation Systems, have joined UNIFE within the last year; GETS did so through purchase of an Italian signalling subsidiary. Did this not create tensions among existing members? Nieuwenhuis confirms that it did, but he says the membership decisions were approved by the Presiding Board and the General Assembly. Clearly, ’Europe is a very interesting market’ for US suppliers, he suggests.

Recent orders for versions of EMD’s JT42CWR (Class 66) for use in Continental Europe have been placed because the locomotive has a proven track record and because diesel traction avoids the complications of different power supplies - achieving interoperability in a manner probably not foreseen by those who dreamt up the concept.

With the first TSIs for interoperability on conventional lines due in 2003 for application in 2006, Nieuwenhuis believes that railways are moving towards ’a single European system’, as envisaged in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by UNIFE, UIC, UITP and CER in June. This would allow an increase in market share and make the railway business more attractive to commercial operators. This in turn, thinks Nieuwenhuis, will lead to ’large groupings dividing up the railway markets in Europe. There will be concentration, as in the USA, with pan-European companies and more regional operators at a lower level.’

Just how this will come about is not clear, but Nieuwenhuis feels that massive change is needed by the railways too. ’Industry has changed from handcraft to modern production tools, and operators should do the same. They must be modern commercial enterprises, and if they do this, they can win a substantial part of the market.’

CAPTION: Taking shape on schedule in the Wien suburb of Floridsdorf, the pan-European twin-tunnel climate chamber is due to be operational at the end of 2002Photo: Rail Tec Arsenal